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Governor signs end-of-life bill

Debbie Ziegler, mother of Brittany Maynard, speaks to the media in Sacramento after the passage in September of legislation that would allow terminally ill patients to legally end their lives. Gov. Brown signed the bill Monday.(Photo: AP/Carl Costas)

Gov. Jerry Brown, in one of the most emotional moments of his long political career,  signed into law a bill allowing people near death to end their lives with lethal drugs supplied by a physician. “The crux of the matter 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 or suffering,” Brown wrote in his official signing message.

Brown, a Catholic who once studied for the priesthood, said he considered the “heartfelt pleas from Brittany Maynard’s family and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In addition, I have discussed this matter with a Catholic Bishop, two of my own doctors and former classmates and friends who take varied, contradictory and nuanced positions,” Brown wrote.

Before her death, Maynard personally urged the governor to sign it and her supporters distributed a videotaped message in which she called for support for the bill.

In the end, the governor wrote, “I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death. 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,” wrote Brown, whose church considers suicide a sin.

With that, Brown signed ABx2 15 by Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman, a Stockton Democrat, a reworked version of the original bill,  SB 128 authored by Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis. California is the fifth state in the nation to allow physician-assisted suicide.

Maynard, a terminally ill California woman who moved to Oregon because of that state’s assisted-suicide law, drew public attention to the hotly disputed bill. Before her death, she personally urged the governor to sign it and her supporters distributed a videotaped message in which she called for support for the bill.

Among the most vigorous opponents of the bill were the California Catholic Conference and the Alliance of Catholic Health Care, and a number of independent living centers cancer doctor associations. The oncologists – cancer doctors – opposed the bill “because it is contrary to a physician’s oath and primary responsibility to do no harm.”

Foes of the bill in the California Catholic Conference were as impassioned in their opposition as Brown was in his signing message.

“Have we become so callous in protecting the sacredness of life that we easily approve of a physician handing over a lethal dose of drugs to someone to end their life at their most vulnerable moment when they most need to be cared for with love and attention?” the Conference said in a written statement. “For vulnerable people, this isn’t compassion.  There’s nothing in this law that supports or promotes the common good.  This bill does nothing to validate the lives of the vulnerable.”

A group called Californians Against Assisted Suicide also was critical.

“This is a dark day for California and for the Brown legacy,” the group Californians Against Assisted Suicide said in a written statement. “Governor Brown was clear in his statement that this was based on his personal background. As someone of wealth and access to the world’s best medical care and doctors the Governor’s background is very different than that of millions of Californians living in healthcare poverty without that same access – these are the people and families potentially hurt by giving doctors the power to prescribe lethal overdoses to patients.”

The California Medical Association earlier withdrew its opposition to the legislation.

Backers included AIDS care groups, the American Nurses Association of California and the California Primary Care Association.

Oregon’s death-with-dignity law was approved by voters there in 1997. Washington and Vermont have similar laws, and court decisions in Montana and New Mexico have “effectively authorized doctors to engage in the practice.” A 2005 Field Poll showed that more than two-thirds of Californians surveyed the notion that “incurably ill patents have the right to ask for and get life-ending medication,” and a similar number “would personally want to have this option if they themselves were terminally ill.”

But there was strong opposition to the bill from Catholic church, which considers suicide a mortal sin, and other groups, including the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Other foes included the National Right to Life Committee, the Medical Oncology Association and groups representing independent living centers for aged adults. Some Latinos in the Legislature, many of whom are Catholics, expressed reservations about the legislation.

The California Medical Association earlier withdrew its opposition to the legislation.

In Oregon, where about 33,000 residents die each year, an average of 50 people have used the aid-in-dying procedure each year. Based on Oregon’s numbers, if a similar law existed in California, which has a population about seven times that of Oregon, that number would be about 350 people, according to a committee analysis.

Ed’s Note: Updates with statement from Californians Against Assisted Suicide, 7th graf.<


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