Gov. Jerry Brown, issuing a raw reflection on his own mortality and the choices he would hope to have in death, signed legislation Monday allowing doctors to prescribe their dying patients lethal drugs.
In doing so, Brown, a former Jesuit seminarian, eschewed the Catholic Church’s appeal to veto the bill while providing a major lift to assisted-death advocates in the United States.
The nationally watched bill emerged after months of debate at the Capitol about the right of terminally ill people to end their lives – a matter Brown said he decided only after pondering his own.
“In the end, I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death,” Brown wrote in a signing message. “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.”
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Barbara Coombs Lee, president of the advocacy group Compassion & Choices, called the bill’s enactment “the biggest victory for the death-with-dignity movement since Oregon passed the nation’s first law two decades ago.”
In an unusually personal signing statement, Brown, a 77-year-old, fourth-term Democrat, said he weighed opposition to the bill from some doctors, religious leaders and champions of disability rights, and also “considered the theological and religious perspectives that any deliberate shortening of one’s life is sinful.”
But Brown said he also considered the “heartfelt pleas” of the family of Brittany Maynard, a Bay Area woman with brain cancer who traveled to Oregon to die.
“I have discussed this matter with a Catholic bishop, two of my own doctors and former classmates and friends who take varied, contradictory and nuanced positions,” Brown wrote.
The legislation, modeled on a law enacted in Oregon in 1997, limits assisted death to patients predicted to die within six months, and it requires approval from multiple physicians.
Advocates, including some terminally ill people, framed the bill as a matter of compassion in hours of emotional testimony at the Capitol.
Opponents said they feared legalizing assisted death would exert pressure on frail and elderly people to end their lives to avoid burdening others.
“This is a dark day for California and for the Brown legacy,” Tim Rosales, a spokesman for Californians Against Assisted Suicide, said in a prepared statement.
Brown had given no indication how he would act on the bill, though his office released a statement in August criticizing the use of a special legislative session to revive the measure outside of the normal legislative process. The bill had initially stalled in an Assembly committee. It ultimately passed over the objections of many Republicans and some Democrats.
Because the bill was passed in a special session, it will not take effect until three months after that session is closed. The health-focused session remains open and could continue until as late as fall 2016. It is unclear when lawmakers will vote to end it.
Like many Catholic Democrats, Brown breaks with the church on abortion rights and same-sex marriage, and he typically demurs when asked to discuss his own religious practices.
While in Vatican City for climate talks this summer, Brown said, “You’d have to say I’m a rather independent thinker in both political and religious matters, but I am steeped in the tradition of the Catholic Church and the Jesuit order.”
Yet the doctor-assisted death bill, which the Legislature passed on the final day of this year’s session, arose amid increasing focus on the church. Brown employed Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change to rally support for his own greenhouse gas reduction efforts, and the pope’s visit to the United States came as Brown weighed physician-assisted death.
Brown has spoken frequently of his advanced age, typically lightheartedly. He has recently invoked his mortality in the context of climate change, arguing its most significant effects will not be felt until after he dies.
Brown was treated for a common type of skin cancer in 2011 and for prostate cancer in 2012. He said soon after that he had fully recovered.
The physician-assisted death bill, by Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman, D-Stockton, followed decades of failed efforts by activists in the Legislature and at the ballot box. Voters rejected a physician-assisted death measure in 1992, but a large majority of Californians have shown support for assisted death in more recent years.
A Field Poll released Monday put public support for the legislation Brown signed at 65 percent of California voters, compared with 27 percent opposed.
Public support cuts across partisan, ethnic and religious lines, with the acrimony present in the Legislature little felt outside Sacramento.
“It’s an issue that’s not as caught up in the political currents of today,” Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo said, unlike other “hot-button social issues” such as gay marriage and medical marijuana, which produce partisan differences in polling.
The bill was favored by majorities of Democrats and Republicans and Latino and Catholic voters, despite opposition from the church.
AB 2X-15, the assisted death bill
The bill permits competent adults with terminal diseases to receive lethal drugs under certain conditions. Patients must:
- Have the capacity to make medical decisions
- Voluntarily ask for the drug
- Self-administer the drug
- Submit two oral requests, at least 15 days apart, and a written request that has been witnessed
- Receive separate diagnoses of the terminal nature of the disease from two independent physicians