(RNS) Physician-assisted dying will become legal in California under a bill signed into law on Monday (Oct. 5) by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.
The law, based on a similar measure in Oregon, allows terminally ill people to seek a doctor’s prescription for a lethal medication. As in Oregon, two doctors must agree the person has only six months to live and is mentally competent.
Last year, 29-year-old Californian Brittany Maynard, dying from an aggressive brain tumor, moved to Oregon to avail herself of the law there. She spent the final weeks of her life recording videos and doing interviews lobbying for this bill to expand to other states. After her death, Nov. 4, her husband and mother carried the effort to the California Legislature.
In a rare statement accompanying the signing notice, Brown, a former Roman Catholic seminarian, said he closely considered arguments on both sides of the controversial measure, which makes California only the fifth U.S. state to legalize assisted dying.
“I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain,” Brown said. “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.”
Compassion & Choices, the national group that led the campaign for the legislation, carried a statement from the group’s president, Barbara Coombs Lee, calling this “the biggest victory for the death-with-dignity movement since Oregon passed the nation’s first law two decades ago.”
Lee, a lawyer, former ER and ICU nurse and physician assistant who co-authored the Oregon Death with Dignity Act, said in her statement, “Enactment of this law in California means we are providing this option to more than 1 in 10 Americans.”
The new law, which becomes effective Jan. 1, makes it a felony to pressure anyone into requesting or taking a lethal prescription.
The bill was strongly opposed by some religious groups, including the Roman Catholic Church, as well as advocates for people with disabilities, who said unscrupulous caregivers or relatives could pressure vulnerable patients to take their own lives.
Opponents also said the bill would invite insurance companies to take advantage of poor patients by offering to pay for the cost of life-ending drugs but not for the expensive treatments that could save lives.
Disability rights activist and evangelical author Joni Eareckson Tada called the legislation “ a form of abandonment.” As social policy, legalizing what she calls “suicide” is to “radicalize one’s right to privacy. It dresses up our willful determination as rights,” she said.
(Opponents of the legislation call it suicide — even though the law does not — while supporters leaned toward the “death with dignity” phrase.)
“There is a deadly mix when you combine our broken health care system with assisted suicide, which immediately becomes the cheapest treatment,” said Marilyn Golden, a senior policy analyst at the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund in Berkeley, Calif. “The so-called protections written into the bill really amount to very little.”
But supporters said the measure would allow people who are terminally ill to die with dignity and greater comfort.
National and state surveys show majority support across all religious groups for medical aid in dying. A 2013 survey by Pew Research found that most said the moral right to die exists in cases where a person has a disease that is incurable (56 percent) or when the person is suffering great pain and has no hope of improvement (62 percent).
“My daughter did not die in vain,” said Robert Olvera, an advocate for the measure whose daughter succumbed to leukemia in 2014. “This is the option she wanted to end her suffering.”
As written, the law will expire after 10 years unless extended, a compromise with lawmakers who were worried about unintended consequences such as the targeting of the poor, elderly and disabled.
(Reuters contributed to this report.)