California’s End of Life Option Act has quietly been implemented. At least one patient, in the Los Angeles area, has already started the process. An attempt to block the law in court has, so far, been denied.
Good. People facing certain, painful and often undignified deaths should be able to take control of their fate, if they want to. And while we don’t celebrate this milestone, we are thankful for it.
Gov. Jerry Brown last October signed legislation by Sens. Lois Wolk, D-Davis,Bill Monning, D-Carmel, and Assemblywoman Susan Eggman, D-Stockton, allowing doctors to voluntarily prescribe lethal doses of drugs to people who are of sound mind but are in their final days. The new law took effect June 9.
In signing the bill, the governor reflected the ambivalence felt by many Californians: “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.”
The California Medical Association was neutral on the measure, which is modeled on a law that has been in place in Oregon since 1997. But though no doctor or hospital will be required to assist in anyone’s death, many people in the medical profession remain opposed. So, too, do some people based on their religious beliefs, and some disability rights activists, who fear terminally ill people will feel pressured to end their lives for financial or other reasons.
“Through our health care professionals and the care and compassion of all people of goodwill, we will continue to lovingly attend, accompany and care for the terminally ill on their final journey,” the California Catholic Conference of Bishops said in a statement. In some parts of the state – Palm Springs, for example – local hospitals have already announced they will not provide aid-in-dying medication, forcing patients who want it to travel 50 miles or more.
We respect opponents’ views, which will surely be aired June 29 when a lawsuit seeking to overturn the law is scheduled to be heard in Riverside County. However, nothing in the law compels terminally ill people to hasten their demise, and many safeguards are written into the End of Life Option Act. There must be second opinions, for example, and assurances that people seeking prescriptions are competent.
Wealth, or lack of it, should not dictate whether terminally ill adults can end their lives on their own terms, when the time comes. And although no federal money can be used for aid in dying services, the state budget includes $2.3 million in state tax funds for the coming year for what the administration calls “end of life” services.
Based on Oregon’s experience, 1,476 Californians will request aid in dying in the coming year. Of that, 30 percent, or 443, would be covered by Medi-Cal, and eligible for state assistance.
So far, advocates say, they have heard several anecdotal reports of patients starting the process, including an as-yet-unnamed man in the Los Angeles area who has said he plans to go public. But unless individuals let their decisions be known, the public will never know who seeks aid in dying, which is as it should be.
However, the California Department of Public Health must issue annual reports detailing the number of people for whom lethal drugs have been prescribed, the number of doctors who issue the prescriptions, the number of people who die on their own terms, and details about them, including their age, race, underlying illnesses and educational level.
Too many people have died excruciating deaths for lack of humane alternatives. Some have decided to leave their homes and travel to Oregon to die. And many family members have been arrested for carrying out the final wishes of a loved one. That will change. Californians can now opt to end their lives on their own terms, and that is worthy of note.