A second chance to do right by the terminally ill

Aid-in-dying advocate Jennifer Glass, photographed by her husband, during her battle with lung cancer. She died in her home this month.
Aid-in-dying advocate Jennifer Glass, photographed by her husband, during her battle with lung cancer. She died in her home this month.

In January, back when she could still breathe well enough to stand and complete a sentence, Jennifer Glass came to the Capitol to ask state lawmakers to help her maintain her dignity in the dwindling time she knew she had left.

“The most debilitating thing about living with life-threatening illness is often the fear that comes with it, because so much is out of your control,” she said at a news conference introducing the End of Life Option Act for California.

The former communications professional from Silicon Valley spoke slowly, with only a slight deference to the lung cancer that would kill her.

“I’m at peace with the idea that my life will end,” she said. “But how it ends as cancer runs its course terrifies me. Lung cancer is an ugly way to die. I would find great comfort in knowing that I had another option, that I might choose to be done with cancer before cancer is done with me.”

That option didn’t materialize. The bill, which would let doctors prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill people, stalled in July in the Assembly. By then, Glass’ cancer had spread throughout her body.

“She had searing headaches for the last two months of her life,” her husband, Harlan Seymour, told a member of The Sacramento Bee editorial board last week. “As the end drew nearer, she had difficulty breathing.”

Eventually, he said, she asked for palliative sedation, in which, to escape the pain, a terminally ill person is given a powerful sedative that slows the breathing and heart rate and often makes it impossible to consume food or water.

“It’s an excruciating process,” Seymour said. “She would cry out in sedated pain, or wake in a panic.”

It took five tortured days, he said, for the fluid filling her lungs to finally suffocate her. On Aug. 11, she died at home, her peaceful goodbye to her loved ones far short of what she had envisioned.

“It was a very traumatic way to go,” her husband said. “It was as scary as she was afraid it would be.”

Anyone who has watched a loved one die painfully and slowly knows the agony it can be, for both patient and family. Suicide is a powerful taboo, and religious groups such as the Roman Catholic Church strongly oppose it. But modern medicine has made it feasible for dying people in pain, who might see a controlled, self-imposed death as an escape and a lesser evil, to circumvent that suffering at the end of life, and have more peace in their final days.

Senate Bill 128, the bill for which Glass had been fighting, would have created a safe and sanctioned procedure for Californians interested in that option. It generated much discussion and useful soul-searching.

By the time it was blocked, largely on religious grounds, many safeguards had been added, so that patients could not be exploited or swayed by unscrupulous caretakers or health insurers. Even the California Medical Association, long an opponent, withdrew its opposition after being satisfied that the process couldn’t be used to coerce the disabled or weak.

Aid-in-dying laws have been in place in Oregon for nearly two decades. There has been no abuse there, just relief for those who choose it.

Now state lawmakers have revived the measure in a similar bill, ABX2-15, put forth as part of the Legislature’s special session on health care. Lawmakers should reconsider it, for the sake of Californians who, unlike Glass, are not beyond suffering.

The law belongs to us all; it cannot be based on morality that isn’t shared by the bulk of the population. Jennifer Glass was no moral outlier. She was just one woman, afraid and in pain, trying to protect herself and her family from an oncoming trauma.

“I’m doing everything I can to extend my life,” she said. “No one should have the right to prolong my death.” California should heed her plea.