Editorials

A choice in the face of death

Gov. Jerry Brown, a lifelong Catholic and former Jesuit seminarian, said he consulted widely before signing legislation allowing terminally ill people in California to take their lives.
Gov. Jerry Brown, a lifelong Catholic and former Jesuit seminarian, said he consulted widely before signing legislation allowing terminally ill people in California to take their lives. The Associated Press

“ABx2 is not an ordinary bill because it deals with life and death.” So begins Gov. Jerry Brown’s extraordinary signing message on one of the most emotional issues to come this year before legislators – a bill that would allow doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs to the terminally ill.

Modern medicine is one of the crowning accomplishments of this era. But it has made it possible for the end of a person’s life to be extended in ways that, for some, come to feel like a cruel marathon of pain management and torment. Often, here and elsewhere, dying people have begged physicians for prescriptions that will allow them to end their own suffering – a request that was against state law to fulfill, until now.

“The crux of the matter,” Brown wrote, “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 and suffering ... In the end, I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death.”

A 77-year-old former Jesuit seminarian, the governor clearly thought deeply about the aid-in-dying measure before signing it into law. He consulted widely, and clearly shared the natural aversion we all have to any involvement in cutting short any life.

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

Gov. Jerry Brown

But Brown did the right thing. Modeled on a 20-year-old Oregon law and passed after months of debate, the legislation is a very limited option for a very limited subset – people with six months or less to live – some of whom are looking forward to indescribable pain in their last days.

Opponents fear abuse, and Brown’s own Catholic church views assisted death as profoundly sinful. But the process requires approval from multiple physicians and multiple requests as a check against exploitation.

Oregon’s law has been used only a few hundred times in the last two decades, and so far, there have been no complaints of abuse or malpractice. Many people will no doubt be comforted knowing the choice is there.

Because it was passed outside the regular legislative session, the measure won’t become law until three months after the current special session on health is ended. And it may be delayed even longer, if a proposed referendum by opponents comes to fruition.

This choice shouldn’t be extended only to be delayed or rescinded. The dying already have waited too long.

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