Soapbox

Don’t suspend California’s new aid-in-dying law

Supporters of an aid-in-dying bill march at the Capitol last September to call on Gov. Jerry Brown to sign it.
Supporters of an aid-in-dying bill march at the Capitol last September to call on Gov. Jerry Brown to sign it. Associated Press file

My wife, Jennifer Glass, endured an agonizing death from lung cancer last August. She spent the last 17 months of her life courageously advocating for legislation to give other terminally ill adults the option to take medication so they can die peacefully in their sleep.

One year later, I am reliving her painful death with a particularly heavy heart because the California bill she helped get enacted into law is under threat, just two months after it took effect.

A Riverside County Superior Court judge is to hold a hearing Friday on a lawsuit filed by the Life Legal Defense Foundation, the American Academy of Medical Ethics and several physicians seeking to suspend the End of Life Option Act.

The suit claims the law fails “to make rational distinctions” between terminally ill adults and the vast majority of Californians not covered by the law.

The attorney general office’s brief opposing the suit resoundingly negates this argument: “Common sense dictates that terminally ill patients, medically determined to have six months or fewer to live, are differently situated from all other California residents or patients who do not have such a terminal disease.”

My wife’s story vividly illustrates this indisputable fact. Like virtually every terminally ill adult, she did not want to die. In fact, she loved life as much as anyone I know. But she was a realist after she received her terminal lung cancer diagnosis in January 2013, just four months after we married.

She was very apprehensive of the excruciating pain associated with death from lung cancer. Just having the option of medical aid in dying would have given her the comfort and peace of mind to more fully live her last days. Her lung cancer was under control until June 2015, when we received the awful news that it had spread to both her lungs, as well as her pelvis, cervix and liver, and most heartbreaking, to her brain.

In her final days as her suffering became unbearable, with searing headaches caused by her brain tumor, and needing an oxygen tank and morphine due to the fluid filling her lungs, my wife opted for palliative sedation. This procedure involves medicating a patient into a coma. The patient dies many days later from a combination of disease and dehydration.

In Jennifer’s case, this took more than five long and sometimes torturous days in our home in San Mateo. She was sedated and mostly lay still in a deep sleep. And yet she groaned and grimaced when we turned her to prevent bed sores. Her bladder became visibly bloated since a side effect of morphine is difficulty passing urine.

While some claim that palliative sedation is an equally gentle alternative to medical aid in dying, that was not the case for my dear wife. In the middle of the third night, she awakened from her coma in a state of agitation, gasping for air and unable to speak coherently. Eventually we were able to calm her by giving her an extra sedative to put her back to sleep, but her nightmare experience was not the peaceful passing she had wanted.

I would be heartbroken to think that my wife’s brave battle to pass the End of Life Option Act was in vain.

Harlan Seymour lives in San Francisco and wrote this on behalf of Compassion & Choices, an advocacy group for aid-in-dying laws. He can be contacted at harlan@harlanseymour.com.

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