California Governor Jerry Brown (D) signed into law the End of Life Option Act on October 5, making the state the fifth to legalize physician-assisted suicide and disappointing a wide coalition of disability rights advocates, who have been among the most vocal opponents of the measure.
“The Governor’s stated reasons are based on fallacies and his action must be denounced,” Not Dead Yet wrote in a news release. “When held up alongside the factually based and well considered reasons that disability rights organizations oppose legalization of assisted suicide – mistaken prognoses, insurance denials, family coercion and abuse, among others – his failure to veto the bill amounts to a breach of his duty to protect all Californians, not just the privileged few who can count on high quality health care and the support of a loving family.”
Under the bill, physicians may prescribe lethal prescriptions to mentally competent patients with terminal illnesses, meaning they have been diagnosed, by two physicians, as having six months or less to live.
After years of unsuccessful efforts, California’s pro-physician-assisted suicide movement gained momentum last fall with the widely publicized video of Brittany Maynard, a then 29-year-old woman with brain cancer who moved to Oregon, where the practice is legal, to end her life. Maynard met with Gov. Brown to campaign for the bill three days before her death.
The bill passed the state Senate in June, after the California Medical Association dropped its opposition. The legislative session ended, however, without a vote in the Assembly, signaling an apparent victory for the bill’s opponents.
Shortly thereafter, the state legislature called a special legislative session, for the purposes of addressing the state’s Medicaid budget. The bill was revived and passed the state Assembly on September 9.
Gov. Brown a former Jesuit seminary student, appeared to struggle with the decision, specifically the balance between his religious beliefs and opinions of proponents from his own party. Ultimately, he determined that end-of-life choices are too personal to be left to anybody other than to the individuals and their families.
“In the end, I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death,” Gov. Brown wrote in a signing statement [PDF]. “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 primary opposition to the bill came from religious groups and Californians Against Assisted Suicide, a coalition of disability rights, health care, civil rights and patient advocacy organizations that oppose the practice. As they see it, the diagnosis “terminal illness” is too subjective to be left in the hands of physicians and that physician-assisted suicides laws incentivize health care officials to withhold treatment for the poor and vulnerable.
“There is a deadly mix when you combine our broken healthcare system with assisted suicide, which immediately becomes the cheapest treatment,” said Marilyn Golden, a senior policy analyst at the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, told Reuters. “The so-called protections written into the bill really amount to very little.”