February 22, 2024

Assisted suicide now legal in California

Governor Jerry Brown signs controversial bill.

Governor Jerry Brown   

Ten percent of Americans now have access to assisted suicide after Jerry Brown, governor of California, approved Assembly Bill 15 on October 5. “This is the biggest victory for the death-with-dignity movement since Oregon passed the nation’s first law two decades ago,” said Barbara Coombs Lee, the head of America’s leading right-to-die group Compassion & Choices.

With assisted suicide now legal in California, Oregon, Washington, Montana and Vermont, as well as throughout Canada, other states are bound to follow. The pattern of the campaign for same-sex marriage – state-by-state victories won through the courts, followed by an appeal to the US Supreme Court – could be a political template.

Assisted suicide had failed in California six times since 1988. But exactly one year ago, on October 6, Compassion & Choices released a superbly-crafted video about Brittany Maynard, a winsome 29-year-old Californian woman with a brain tumour, who had to move to Oregon because assisted suicide was illegal in her own state. It became a YouTube sensation; the tears trickling down her cheeks drowned opposing arguments in a flood of emotion. She took a lethal dose of medication on November 1 last year.

After the bill was passed by both the Senate and the Legislative Assembly, only a veto by Governor Jerry Brown, a one-time Jesuit seminarian, could have stopped it. He declined.

In an unusual move, he explained why he had signed the bill in a brief note. He wrote: 

“ABx2 15 is not an ordinary bill because it deals with life and death. The crux of the matter is whether the State of California should continue to make it a crime for a dying person to end his life, no matter how great his pain or suffering …

“In the end, I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death. 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.”

Some Californians must be wondering whether he had actually read the legislation. The crux of the bill is not whether the patient is committing a crime, but whether those assisting him will be prosecuted. Suicide is not a crime in California. Nor is eligibility for assisted suicide based on pain and suffering in the bill. Only a “terminal disease” is and this may not involve any pain at all. In any case, loss of autonomy, decreasing ability to enjoy life and loss of dignity were the three top reasons for requests for assisted suicide in Oregon, not pain and suffering.

Because the bill was passed in a special session, it will not take effect until three months after that session is closed. That could be as late as autumn of next year.  

Opponents of the bill were bitterly critical. “There is a deadly mix when you combine our broken healthcare system with assisted suicide, which immediately becomes the cheapest treatment,” says Marilyn Golden, a senior policy analyst at the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund in Berkeley. “The so-called protections written into the bill really amount to very little.”

Nearly everyone agrees that the bill would not have succeeded without the Compassion & Choices YouTube video featuring Brittany Maynard. It was released exactly one year ago, on October 6, and was seen by millions of people who watched Brittany plead tearfully for the right to die. “The wind of Brittany’s message filled our sails,” says Barbara Lee Combs in a new video. “So now we are under full sail ahead. I don’t think anything can stop us now.”

The next target of Compassion & Choices is New York. It has hired veteran lobbyist, Corinne A. Carey, as its New York State Campaign Director.

It will be interesting to see how assisted suicide develops in California. Its new law is modelled on Oregon’s, but the land of fruits and nuts is different from its northern neighbour. California is America’s most unequal state in terms of well-being. The well-to-do in Silicon Valley will enjoy all the safeguards of the law; the strugglers in Central Valley could fall through its cracks. It is also far more racially diverse: Oregon is 2% African-American, California 7%; Oregon is 12% Hispanic, California 39%; Oregon is 4% Asian, California 14%.

California is also the most litigious state — a “judicial hell-hole”, according to some critics.  The law’s restrictions could be wedged open with lawsuits fought over exceptional cases. Why is there an age limit of 18? Why does a patient have to be terminally ill? Why can’t he be suffering from a mental disorder? If the right to die is a can of worms, California’s lawyers have big can-openers. 

Creative commons
assisted suicide
Brittany Maynard
Compassion & Choices