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Governor Wrestles With His Own Mortality, Signs ‘Death With Dignity’ Law

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

California will become the largest state to allow terminally ill residents to end their lives with the approval of a doctor, after Gov. Jerry Brown (D) added his signature to a long-awaited piece of legislation on Monday.

The California legislature initially approved the so-called “right-to-die” bill more than a month ago after a contentious political campaign surrounding the measure. The Catholic Church came out in opposition to the bill, though major medical groups did not. It was unclear whether or not Brown — who is a former Jesuit seminarian — would approve the legislation.

In a letter addressed to lawmakers on Monday, the governor was frank about wrestling with the decision. He said he read appeals from people on both sides of the issue, consulted a Catholic bishop, and spoke with two of his own doctors. Ultimately, he was faced with questions about his own mortality.

“In the end, I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death,’’ Brown wrote. “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.”

CREDIT: Ca.gov
CREDIT: Ca.gov

Physician-assisted suicide has long been controversial among both doctors and the public, although it typically depends a lot on the language used to describe it. When it’s framed in terms of a doctor helping “to end the patient’s life by some painless means” — rather than in terms of “suicide” — public support for death-with-dignity laws increases by nearly 20 percentage points.

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The debate over doctor-assisted death became particularly relevant in the Golden State over the past year thanks to Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman with terminal brain cancer who moved from California to Oregon so she could take advantage of a doctor-assisted suicide law in Oregon. In the final weeks of her life, Maynard raised national awareness about “death with dignity” — which has become somewhat of a stalled movement in recent years — by partnering with the advocacy group Compassion & Choices to get the word out about her own decisions surrounding her end-of-life care.

“This is the biggest victory for the death-with-dignity movement since Oregon passed the nation’s first law two decades ago,” Barbara Coombs Lee, the president of Compassion & Choices and one of the people who helped write Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, said in a press statement.

Aid-in-dying” laws typically allow doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of medication to terminally ill patients. The dying individuals can keep the pills at home and choose when they want to ingest them. According to one study that examined data from Oregon, the majority of patients never actually follow through.

California joins just a small handful of states that permit physician-assisted suicide. In addition to Oregon, lawmakers and court decisions in Washington, Montana, New Mexico, and Vermont have also legalized the practice.