Joe Mathews: At the end of life, the most important right is to change your mind

Debbie Ziegler displays a photo of her daughter Brittany Maynard while appearing before lawmakers in March to urge passage of “right-to-die” legislation.
Debbie Ziegler displays a photo of her daughter Brittany Maynard while appearing before lawmakers in March to urge passage of “right-to-die” legislation. The Associated Press

Seventy-four years ago in Long Beach, a bride stood in the back of a church, about to walk down the aisle. Her father eyed the groom warily and whispered in her ear: “It’s not too late to change your mind, dear.”

Today, that bride greets me from her bed in a board-and-care home in San Mateo. “Did you know I’m 100 years old?” she asks. My grandmother is exaggerating. She’s 98. But I don’t correct her. She’s taught me there’s little certainty in life, especially at the end.

I think of Grandma Oops (she’s a major league klutz) as Senate Bill 128 makes its way through the Legislature. The measure would allow mentally competent California residents with six or fewer months to live to obtain a prescription for lethal drugs they can give themselves.

I have no beef with the bill; my grandmother is strongly for it. Such legislation suits California, with its long tradition of giving people more control over how they die. What doesn’t fit California, or the reality of the end of our lives, is the uncompromising tone of those on both sides of the debate.

Advocates for SB 128 can be unnerving in their unswerving commitment to the right to die, and in their bullying of those of us who would use the term “suicide” in this context.

The opponents are just as rigid. Religious leaders call the suicide of a terminally ill person an affront to God. Doctors claim that physicians are healers and nothing more – despite the lack of empathy and excessive charging of helpless patients in that profession.

Indeed, all the attention around the bill seems too much, for two reasons. One is mathematical. Even if the bill is enacted, assisted suicides are certain to be extremely rare; in Oregon, which pioneered this right, such suicides represent less than three-tenths of 1 percent of deaths.

The second reason is fuzzier, literally: To apply rigid moral claims to a sphere as uncertain as the end of life is foolish. And wrong.

It also misses the point. The most important right to protect at life’s end is not the right to die, but rather the right to change your mind.

Changes of mind define a life; that’s what my grandmother taught me. She didn’t care for marriage or family, but she married as a nod to the times; you couldn’t spend all your time with a man if you didn’t marry him. She changed her mind about not having kids when she saw how good her husband was with them. She was committed to Southern California life in Long Beach, but became a Northern Californian – a teacher in San Mateo – when my grandfather, a civilian Navy employee, got a job at Hunters Point in San Francisco.

Because her teaching job came with government benefits, she could choose her end-of-life care, and she selected a board-and-care that a large Tongan family runs in their home.

On her 90th birthday, Grandma Oops, battling a kidney problem, was told she needed dialysis or she would die. She refused, saying she’d used too many of the Earth’s resources already. Eight years later, she’s still refusing treatment for various maladies. But when I visit with her three great-grandchildren – who are 6 years, 4 years, and 20 months old – she hugs them and encourages them to run down the house’s long halls.

And she says she’s changed her mind; now she’s glad she lived long enough to know them.

One good thing about SB 128 is that it leaves room for people to change their minds. You have to make two oral requests for lethal drugs 15 days apart, and a written request that is witnessed. And you have to administer the medication yourself.

The real problem with the legislation is it’s too narrow. California needs a much broader conversation about improving end-of-life care for all of us. Palliative care is hard to find. We Californians have decided not to make the investments in the care we’ll need as our senior population explodes in the years ahead.

Of course, it’s not too late for us to change our minds.

Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.