Gov. Jerry Brown Just Signed California’s Right to Die Bill

October 5th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

California became the fifth U.S. state on Monday to allow terminally ill patients to die on their own terms after state Gov. Jerry Brown signed a measure into law.

A little less than a year ago, Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old California native suffering from a terminal form of brain cancer, moved with her family and new husband to a small house in Portland, Oregon, where she could quietly die with dignity. Maynard had moved to Oregon, where terminally ill patients have been able to undergo physician-assisted suicide since 1997. At the time, California outlawed the practice.

Brown's approval marks the end of a contentious debate over patients' right to die, bristling with deep-seated disagreements that often pinned moral, ethical, and religious beliefs against patients' rights and self-determination.

"In the end, I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death," Brown said following the bill's approval. "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," he said.

The bill's approval marks a victory for patients like Maynard and right-to-die advocacy groups that say patients diagnosed with terminal illnesses should at least have the option to control their passing. The passage comes almost exactly one year after Maynard and her family launched a national campaign with the death with dignity group Compassion & Choices.

"This is the biggest victory for the death-with dignity movement since Oregon passed the nation's first law two decades ago," said Compassion & Choice president and lawyer Barbara Coombs Lee. "This victory is hugely significant in both substance and scope," said Coombs Lee, who is a former ER and ICU nurse and physician's assistant and the coauthor to Oregon's Death with Dignity Act.

"Enactment of this law in California means we are providing this option to more than 1 in 10 Americans," she said.

The California bill passed the state Senate earlier this month, shortly after passing the state Assembly.

"I am extremely grateful to the governor for his leadership and signing this vital piece of legislation. My wife, Brittany Maynard, spoke up last year to make a difference for terminally ill individuals who are facing a potentially harsh dying process," said Dan Diaz, Maynard's husband. "I am glad to see that our legislators have listened to Brittany and the hundreds of terminally ill Californians who are in a similar crisis," he said.

California is the latest state to pass right-to-die legislation, joining Oregon, Washington, Vermont, and Montana. New Mexico's Supreme Court will hear arguments on similar legislation later this month.

Nationally, a majority seem to favor giving doctors the option to prescribe life-ending drugs, according to a recent Gallup survey that found that 68 percent of adults support doctor-assisted suicide. As Pew notes, the rise in favorable opinions has been especially notable among young adults, 81 percent of whom support the practice. According to Pew, a majority of Americans—56 percent—say the moral right exists in cases when a person's disease is incurable.