California's Governor Signs Right-to-Die Law

Despite safeguards, opponents of the California law say it will invite abuse of the poor who suffer chronic conditions and face steep medical costs.

The nation’s most populous state now has an assisted suicide law, after California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation giving the terminally ill access to lethal medication.

Brown’s statement put the issue in personal terms; the former Jesuit seminarian said he had had material from both advocates on both sides of the issue, but ultimately acted after reflecting on what he would do if he faced a prolonged death in pain. Until yesterday, Brown had not weighed in on the bill.

“I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain,” Brown wrote. “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.”

Under the new law, patients who seek access to lethal drugs must be evaluated by 2 doctors, who must agree that the patient has 6 months or less to live. The patient must also submit separate requests for the medication at least 15 days apart, as well as a written request to a physician.

Patients must be able to swallow the medication—it cannot be given by any other method—and they must demonstrate mental capacity to make their own medical decisions.

Opponents of the law have said it will open the door for abuse, and those patients who are poor and chronically ill or disabled will be pressured into ending their lives early to avoid medical costs, or to ensure that assets pass to heirs. The law takes effect in 2016.

Assisted suicide is legal in 4 other states, through a combination of state laws and court rulings.

Tim Rosales, spokesman for Californians Against Assisted Suicide, called the moment “a dark day for Californians.”

“Governor Brown was clear in his statement that this was based on his experience and his background,” Rosales said. “As someone of wealth and access to the best medical care and doctors, the governor’s background is very different than millions of Californians living in health care poverty.”

But US Senator Dianne Feinstein said Brown made the “absolutely correct” decision. “I’ve seen firsthand the agony that accompanies prolonged illness, for both patients and loved ones, and this bill provides a compassionate, kind option,” Feinstein said in a prepared statement.

California’s law was signed a day before the one-year anniversary of a video release by Brittany Maynard, a young woman who moved from California to Oregon, so she could access the law after learning she had incurable brain cancer. Maynard talked with Brown before she died, and her husband continued to advocate for the California law after her death.