For the first time since 2007, legislation has been introduced in this year’s State Senate that would legalize physician-assisted suicide in California. The bill, SB 128, The End of Life Option Act, is modeled on Oregon’s Right to Die law. It allows a person with a terminal disease and a prognosis of death within six months to obtain a physician’s prescription for a lethal dose of medication.
Two doctors would have to agree that the patient meets certain criteria, such as mental competence, that they’ve been made aware of alternatives, and that they be able to take the dose without help. There’s a fifteen-day waiting period and doctors who don’t want to write that prescription can opt out. A patient can change their mind at any time. California’s law has two different provisions from Oregon’s law: it requires a translator for non-English speaking patients and pharmacists are given legal immunity for participating in these deaths.
There are currently only three states that permit physician-assisted death laws: Oregon, Vermont, and Washington and court-rulings make the procedure available in New Mexico and Montana. According to the San Jose Mercury News, 12 other states have introduced right to die legislation.
The current push for right to die legislation was prompted by the death of 29 year old Brittany Maynard, who moved to Oregon from Northern California in order to end her life after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Her video, explaining why she moved to Oregon and wished to end her own life, has been viewed by millions of people on YouTube and is credited with getting a bill introduced in the state legislature this year.
California’s bill is bound to generate controversy and there’s no certainty that the governor would sign it. One thing is for sure, though — its introduction will get a lot of people thinking and talking about what kind of choices patients deserve at the end of life. Having lost a dear friend to the same brain cancer that Brittany had, and having spent that last year with my friend, as she struggled with the loss of dignity and capacity that the progression of the disease causes, I applaud Brittany’s courage in speaking out while she still could and look forward to a rigorous , and hopefully thoughtful, public discussion.