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Physician-Assisted Suicide in California Becomes Legal as Gov. Brown Signs Bill

(UPDATED) Controversial law, inspired by Brittany Maynard, allows physicians to prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill.
Physician-Assisted Suicide in California Becomes Legal as Gov. Brown Signs Bill
Image: Church Militant

Update (Oct. 5): California Gov. Jerry Brown today signed a controversial physician-assisted suicide bill despite concerns among conservative Christians and disability advocates that the terminally ill elderly, poor, and disabled will feel pressure from their families to end their lives due to the high cost of health care.

“I have considered the theological and religious perspectives that any deliberate shortening of one’s life is sinful,” said Brown, who once studied in seminary to become a Jesuit in the Catholic Church.

Brown said he spoke with Desmond Tutu, the retired Anglican archbishop from South Africa and the family of Brittany Maynard, the terminal cancer patient who took her own life last year. Tutu, Maynard, and her family all support physician-assisted suicide. Brown also said he spoke with a bishop in the Catholic church, which opposes all such life-ending legislation.

“In the end, I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death,” he wrote in a public statement. “I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain. I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I wouldn’t deny that right to others.”

The states of Washington, Vermont, Montana have joined Oregon in permitting physician-assisted suicide. The California law may not take effect until sometime next year. The precise date depends on when the legislature's special session adjourns.

"As someone of wealth and access to the world’s best medical care and doctors, the governor’s background is very different than that of millions of Californians living in health care poverty without that same access – these are the people and families potentially hurt by giving doctors the power to prescribe lethal overdoses to patients," said Californians Against Assisted Suicide.

Supporters of the law say it legalizes "aid in dying," not suicide, and the law as enacted has safeguards to protect people who are terminally ill. It requires them to submit a request for lethal drugs in writing and have the ability to "self-administer" any life-ending drugs.

"Governor Brown and those like him—affluent, privileged, able-bodied, and with supportive families—are not the ones who will pay the price for this new 'freedom,' " said O. Carter Snead, director of the University of Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, in a statement posted on Facebook. "Governor Brown has purchased the right to assisted suicide at the expense of the disabled, the marginalized, the poor, and the elderly. Shame on him for being so selfish and short-sighted."

Many secular advocates for the rights of disabled condemned Gov. Brown's reasoning for signing the bill into law. "For one, [Brown] says that 'the crux of the matter is whether the State of California should continue to make it a crime for a dying person to end his life . . ..' Suicide is not a crime under California law (nor in other states), but assisted suicide proponents love to confuse people about that," said Not Dead Yet, the disability rights organization. "The crime is when physicians and other third parties, such as the individual’s heirs, assist in suicide."

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[Sept. 11, 2015] The California state Senate voted today 23 to 14 to approve the controversial End of Life Option Act, which would allow physicians to prescribe lethal drugs to their dying patients.

Two days ago, the state Assembly (the lower house) voted 42 to 33 in favor of the physician-assisted suicide bill (ABX-2-15) during a special legislative session that Gov. Jerry Brown called to focus solely on financing for MediCal, the state health insurance program. Brown has yet to announce whether he would sign any physician-assisted suicide bill. He has until October 11 to sign or veto the bill.

"We urge all Californians concerned about the rights of the medically vulnerable to contact Gov. Brown and tell him to stop doctor-prescribed suicide," said Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life. If the bill becomes law, California will become the fourth state to legalize physician-assisted suicide.

Earlier this year, sponsoring lawmakers withdrew the measure after there were not enough votes in committee to move it forward for a full vote in the Assembly. Back in June, the Senate passed the bill on a 23-to-14 vote.

Recently, the University of California, Berkeley, released an opinion poll that found 75 percent of surveyed Californians support physician-assisted suicide.

Public debate over assisted suicide changed as Californian Brittany Maynard, 29, a terminally ill cancer patient, began public advocacy for it on YouTube and CNN. She moved from California to Oregon to take advantage of Oregon’s Death with Dignity law. She died November 1.

This afternoon, state senators debated the merits of the bill in strongly worded and emotive terms. “Don’t push the old and the weak out of this world,” said Sen. Ted Gaines, a Republican from El Dorado. “Oncologists want no part of this,” said Sen. Bob Huff, a Republican from Brea.

“Take this decision-making out of the hands of government and put it in the hands of family and physicians,” said Sen. Mark Leno, a Democrat from San Francisco and co-sponsor. “This is not suicide. In end of life, aid in dying, different people die in different ways. No physician or pharmacist is required to participate,” said Sen. Bill Monning, a Democrat from Carmel. “Establish September 11 as a day of compassion.”

During Wednesday floor debate in the Assembly, there were impassioned pleas from both sides.

“Imagine that it’s one of your constituents, suffering in agonizing pain—their pain medication no longer works,” said Assembly member Luis Alejo, a Watsonville Democrat. “Then imagine that it’s your father or your mother or your grandparents or your daughter.”

Assembly Rep. Cheryl Brown, a Democrat from Rialto, shared about her son who at one point was terminally ill from an infection. She said the physicians advised her to let him die. But the family decided against that and 19 days later, he came off life support and survived. “Doctors don’t know everything,” she said.

Regarding the Assembly vote on Wednesday, Life News reported:

“The Assembly members didn’t focus on the bill’s language,” said Margaret Dore, president of Choice Is an Illusion, regarding the bill modeled on similar laws in Oregon and Washington State. “The bill is sold as giving people choice and control at the end of life. Yet the bill’s language is stacked against the patient and applies to people with years, even decades, to live.”

The bill has a “sunset” clause, meaning that it would expire in 10 years unless the legislature voted to extend it.

The legality of assisted-suicide is on the rise in North America. In February, the Supreme Court in Canada ruled that competent adults who are extremely ill and near death should have the right to ask their physician to assist in their death.

The high court directed the Parliament in Canada to approve the necessary legislation by February 2016. At this point, it is unclear if physicians would be able to opt out of providing life-terminating drugs to their patients. In Quebec, medical officials are now issuing standardized kits to provide “medical aid in dying.” The kits include drugs to calm nerves and stop breathing.

Earlier on Friday in the UK, the Parliament delivered a stunning setback to proponents of physician-assisted suicide. Voting 118 to 330, MPs voted down a private member's bill that would allow a "competent" person with a terminal illness to request professional medical assistance in dying.

Past CT coverage on suicide and assisted-suicide includes:

Physician-Assisted Suicide Bill Scrapped in California. Christian, disability, and medical groups persuade lawmakers to reject End of Life Option Act.

Assisted Suicide and Real Death With Dignity. Advocates say that choosing when we die is a fundamental right. My late husband thought otherwise.

January/February
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