My mother died in California. My father died in Oregon, 20 miles from the California line.
That 20 miles made a big difference in how their lives ended – a difference the California Legislature should consider as it begins hearings this week on adopting an End-of-Life Options Act similar to Oregon law.
My parents, Ellen and Bert Witt, were married in 1940. They were children of the Great Depression and World War II. A salesman and a social worker, they settled in Los Angeles, where they raised four sons.
In 2007, when my mother was in her late 80s, she was hospitalized after a risky surgery. When it became clear that she was not going to recover, she told her doctor and family that she wanted to spend her remaining time at home.
Under California law, she could ask her doctor for painkillers, but not for medication to take, at her own discretion, to end her life. Instead of leaving that decision to her, the state dictated that she had to continue to live, regardless of the suffering that might impose.
Deprived of that choice, my mother took the only path she saw open. She refused to eat and spent her final days going through the devastating effects that causes.
Contrast that with my father’s experience. After my mother died, he moved to Oregon to live with my wife and me.
In 2008, his doctors told him he had a terminal disease that would steadily grow worse until he was confined to a chair or bed. Already in his 90s, my father’s worst fear was not of death, but of being incapacitated and in pain.
Unlike my mother, he had choices thanks to the Death with Dignity Act that Oregon adopted in the 1990s. Once he had six months to live, he could ask his doctors to prescribe a life-ending medication. He could take it when he was ready, or not at all. His doctors respected his wishes, but if doing so had violated their own beliefs, they had the right under the law to refer him to other doctors instead.
Learning how the Oregon law works from the organization Compassion & Choices eased my father’s fear of losing control of his future. He died before he ever had to take end-of-life medication. But in his final months he had peace of mind, knowing that he would not have to go through what my mother went through in California.
By adopting a law like Oregon’s, the California Legislature has the chance to recognize that end-of-life choices should be made by each individual, not by the state. No doubt, opponents who seek to impose their own religious choices on others will claim that under such a law old or sick people will be pressured to die. They claimed that in Oregon 20 years ago, but they were wrong. There have been no such cases.
Fewer than 800 people in Oregon have taken end-of-life medication, but thousands like my father have been comforted by knowing their choices were up to them. It’s too late for my mother. The California Legislature can ensure that no one is denied that peace of mind in the future.
Matt Witt is a writer and photographer who grew up in California and lives in Talent, Ore.