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California Is Now a Leader in Right-to-Die Movement

Members of Compassion and Choices California held a rally in favor of ABX215 in front of Assemblyman Mike Gatto’s (D-Glendale) office in Burbank on Friday, August 28, 2015. (Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)
Members of Compassion and Choices California held a rally in favor of ABX215 in front of Assemblyman Mike Gatto’s (D-Glendale) office in Burbank on Friday, August 28, 2015. (Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

If you were terminally ill and had the option to end your life, would you do it? This was one of the many questions Governor Jerry Brown had to consider before he signed ABX2 15, known as the End of Life Option Act, into law on October 5th, making California the most recent state to allow this controversial end-of-life option.

Primarily written by State Senators Lois Wolk (D-Davis) and Bill Monning (D-Carmel), the End of Life Option Act allows doctors to prescribe doses of deadly medication to people who are terminally ill and expected to die within six months upon request, as long as the patient is mentally competent. Modeled after the 1997 Oregon law, the bill passed on the senate floor with a vote of 23 to 15 before being signed by Brown. However, the law won’t come in to effect until after the legislature’s special session on healthcare: January at the earliest, November at the latest.

The close vote in the California senate illustrates just how controversial the End of Life Option Act has proven to be. Many diverse groups oppose death-with-dignity laws, including the Catholic Church, Californians Against Assisted Suicide, State Senator Bob Huff (R-San Dimas), and the American Medical Association.

One of the most widely accepted arguments against death-with-dignity laws is that they can pressure people without health insurance who are facing large health expenses to submit to assisted suicide instead of fighting for their lives. Some are concerned that patients will be convinced by their doctors to take the medication. Senator Hoff has called the End of Life Option Act “assisted killing” and “state-assisted death”, explaining how doctors do not want to become “prescribers of death”. Indeed, the traditional purpose of doctors is to save lives, not to help end them. He also emphasized the potential of the bill to exploit the problem of elder abuse, detailing how the bill provides a tool for abusers to hide the evidence.

But perhaps the purpose of doctors is now being refocused in a new direction. Despite the many arguments against right-to-die laws, many remain in favor of the End of Life Option Act, including State Assembly Members Susan Eggman (D-Stockton) and Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville), group Compassion and Choices, and Senators Wolk and Monning.

Senator Wolk decided that it was an appropriate time for California to adopt its own death-with-dignity law following the media attention from Brittany Maynard. Those supporting death-with-dignity laws argue for a quick and easy death surrounded by family members, rather than months of prolonged and pointless suffering. Some even maintain that since we use euthanasia to put down pets out of mercy, why shouldn’t the same logic be applied to human beings?

So what are the implications of the End of Life Option Act? Similar right-to-die and death-with-dignity laws already exist in Oregon, Washington, Vermont, and Montana. Now that California has passed its own version of the law, assisted suicide is now provided to over 1 in 10 Americans, and legislators from across the nation are looking for it to expand even further. Over 20 states are considering death-with-dignity legislation, including Nevada, Wyoming, Wisconsin, New York, North Carolina, Missouri, and District of Columbia. A particularly strong battle is taking place in Maryland, where activists are hoping to take advantage of the momentum caused by California’s adoption of death-with-dignity legislation. A spokesperson for Wolk emphasized that California is a leader in political issues, thus California’s adoption of a right-to-die law will cause other states to propose similar legislation.

Although right-to-die laws are now likely to spread across the nation, they remain highly emotional and controversial topics. A spokeswoman for Senator Wolk described how the bill is a controversial topic for many because the subject of death is a sensitive one, especially since it is often tied to religious beliefs. Wolk personally believes the bill protects the sanctity of life, and has said that one of her main motivations to write the bill was her mother’s experience when she died from cancer. However, Senator Huff has described how his brother’s death has motivated him to oppose the End of Life Option Act. Huff’s brother died from brain cancer in Montana, and opted not to utilize the state’s right-to-die law.

While Brown described his own personal struggle when debating whether to sign the act, bringing up his own experience with cancer, he ultimately decided that he believes assisted suicide should be an option for the terminally ill. Whether one agrees with or opposes the End of Life Option Act, it is clearly becoming more available through legislation. Indeed, terminally ill Californians now have more choices to make than ever before.

Featured image source: Los Angeles Times/Raul Roa