California Governor Signs Controversial Right-to-Die Law

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Oct 6, 2015

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California’s governor has signed into law controversial right-to-die legislation ending a year-long emotionally charged debate among state legislators.  By signing the bill into law, California becomes just the fifth state to legalize right-to-die decisions that allows doctors to medically end the lives of patients who request it.

California Legalizes Right-to-die Decisions

Early this week, the Washington Post reported that Governor Jerry Brown announced his intention to sign into law California’s new right-to-die legislation.  Only four other states across the country allow the right-to-die, and California’s path to becoming the fifth featured more than a year of intense and emotional debate among state legislators on opposite sides of the issue.  In a signing statement released to the press, Gov. 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.”

California’s right-to-die bill will mimic Oregon’s current legal structure which allows patients to opt for physician assisted suicide only if they have consulted with two physicians who both diagnose the patient with a terminal illness that will give them less than six months to live.  Further, the diagnosing doctors must be both agree that the patient is mentally fit to make the decision to end their own life.  Although the bill has been signed into law the state has not announced when it would go into effect.

Gov. Brown had the bill on his desk for weeks and cited his Catholic faith as a source of internal conflict that he had to overcome before signing the controversial legislation in to law.  During the intense debate in the state’s legislative body supporters and opponents of the bill disagreed over the morality of allowing people who suffer from terminal illnesses to have physician assisted suicide as an option if available treatments were unappealing.  After the bill failed to pass the legislative body when it was first introduced in 2007, proponents of the law were able to earn enough support during this year’s session to join California with Oregon, Montana, Washington, and Vermont as the only states in the country to legalize a right-to-die.

Opponents of Right-to-die Issue Statement in Response to Law

After Gov. Brown announced he would sign California’s right-to-die law, opponents of the bill issued a statement to the press that condemned the decision. Californians Against Assisted Suicide said that policymakers failed to consider the financially impoverished patients who may not have access to the same quality medical care as the Governor or other state legislators.  According to the statement, low-income Californians may be told they have only six months to live because of the lower quality of doctor they have available to them while higher-income patients who can afford better healthcare will receive better medical advice.

Opposition to the bill also came in the form of testimony and letters from priests or other religious leaders who oppose suicide in any form and were also concerned that disparity in quality of care would cause low-income patients to be susceptible to hasty end of life decisions.  The California Catholic Conference issued a statement citing similar concerns about varying quality of care between the poor and the wealthy, and encouraging Gov. Brown to veto the bill by considering Californians who live in the margins of poverty and may not be able to afford quality care.

Emotional pleas from opponents to the bill were matched by supporters of the bill who used the recent example of Brittany Maynard to argue the legislation was not only moral but necessary in California.

Brittany Maynard Case Advances Right-to-die Movement

Last year the story of Brittany Maynard brought the right-to-die movement to the attention of American political debate. Brittany was 29-years-old when she found out that she had terminal brain cancer.  Within months of the discovery, Brittany moved from California to Oregon where she legally took her own life last November by ingesting fatal medication provided by her physician.  Throughout her process, Brittany maintained a position that would go on to become the mantra for supporters of right-to-die legislation – she had the right to die with dignity by her own choice.

Brittany’s story, and her argument that she should have the right-to-die with dignity, touched off a wave of support for right-to-die legislation in California that was heavily emphasized during the intense debates about the bill.  While the law will remain controversial and receive strong opposition, Governor Brown’s decision to sign California’s right-to-die legislation will put the policy into effect sometime in the near future and allow Californians who face a terminal diagnosis to elect physician assisted suicide.

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