THE CALIFORNIA legislature this month approved a bill that would give terminally ill adults the option to request medication to end their lives. It was a landmark moment in an effort dating to 1995 to pass legislation that allows for death with dignity. Whether the measure takes effect is up to Gov. Jerry Brown (D). He has given no clue as to what action he will take. We hope he signs the measure into law.
Passage of the End of Life Option Act was marked by controversy over both the process and the emotionally charged issues that surround physician-assisted suicide. Right-to-die legislation had stalled in committee during the legislature’s regular session, and some saw repackaging it during a special session on health care for the poor as ramming it through the legislature. That criticism overlooks the fact that the legislature held four hearings on various versions of the bill, conducted three floor debates and, in the final days of the special session, added amendments that strengthened safeguards against abuse.
The final bill is modeled after Oregon’s law, which has been used sparingly and responsibly since 1997. Like Oregon’s, the California measure would require that two physicians separately confirm that a patient is suffering from a terminal illness with a life expectancy of less than six months and is of sound mental capacity. The patient must accept certain waiting periods and, in the end, be able to self-administer the life-ending medication. The California measure also would require a private consultation between a doctor and patient to guard against possible coercion. It includes a sunset provision that would require the law to be reauthorized in 10 years.
Once the bill reaches Mr. Brown’s desk, he has 12 days to sign or veto it or let it take effect without his signature. Opponents of the measure are hoping his background as a Jesuit seminary student will influence his decision, while advocates hope his hour-long phone conversation with the late Brittany Maynard, a young Californian who moved to Oregon to take advantage of its law after she was diagnosed with brain cancer, will prove persuasive. Ms. Maynard’s championing of physician-assisted suicide raised its profile in a number of places, including the District, that are considering legislation like Oregon’s. Three other states currently allow physician-assisted suicide.
Both sides make persuasive arguments on this deeply felt issue. For us, it comes down to a question of individual rights and choice. People who are dying should have humane options for their life’s end when those are medically feasible. Physicians shouldn’t have to wink at the law to help such people, as they often do today. California lawmakers have crafted a bill that allows individuals to assert some control over the manner of their death while building in strong protections to make sure such decisions are never coerced.