California Governor Jerry Brown gives go-ahead to euthanasia bill

California Governor Jerry Brown: "I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death."
MATT MILLS MCKNIGHT

California Governor Jerry Brown: "I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death."

Caught between conflicting moral arguments, Governor Jerry Brown, a former Jesuit seminary student, signed a measure on Tuesday (NZT) allowing physicians to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients who want to hasten their deaths.

Brown appeared to struggle in deciding whether to approve the bill, whose opponents included the Catholic Church.

"In the end, I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death," Brown wrote in a signing message. "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 new law is modelled after one that went into effect in 1997 in Oregon, where last year 105 people took their lives with drugs prescribed for that purpose.

The California law will permit physicians to provide lethal prescriptions to mentally competent adults who have been diagnosed with terminal illnesses and expect that they would die within six months.

EMOTIONAL DEBATE

The law will take effect 90 days after the Legislature adjourns its special session on health care, which may not be until next year - January at the earliest, November at the latest.

The governor's action caps months of emotional debate over the End of Life Option Act, which divided physicians, ethicists, religious leaders and the Democratic majority in the Legislature.

Tim Rosales, a spokesman for Californians Against Assisted Suicide, which includes doctors, advocates for the disabled, the California Catholic Conference and other religious groups, criticised Brown's action.

"This is a dark day for California and for the Brown legacy," Rosales said. "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 health care poverty without that same access - these are the people and families potentially hurt by giving doctors the power to prescribe lethal overdoses to patients."

READ MORE: Euthanasia debate back on the political agenda

Catholic Church officials, when asked for comment, said Rosales would speak for them. Rosales said the coalition is considering its options, including a lawsuit and a referendum.

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Brown said he considered the religious arguments.

The bill "is not an ordinary bill because it deals with life and death," Brown wrote. "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."

The issues raised by the legislation are personal for Brown, who has survived multiple brushes with cancer and has lost family members.

DEATH WITH DIGNITY

The group Compassion & Choices, which pushed for the new law, said it hopes other states will follow California's lead.

"This is the biggest victory for the death-with-dignity movement since Oregon passed the nation's first law two decades ago," said Barbara Coombs Lee, the group's president. "Enactment of this law in California means we are providing this option to more than 1 in 10 Americans."

Most Republican lawmakers opposed the bill on moral grounds. Democrats who voted against it cited religious views or experiences in which family members given months to live by doctors had lived for years.

Brown ignored warnings that some people would be pressured into assisted suicide, Republican state Sen. Bob Huff said.

"Let's call this for what it really is: It's not death with dignity. This is state-assisted death, physician-assisted death and relative-assisted death," Huff said.

Critics said the bill's authors bypassed the normal process for legislation. When a previous bill did not get enough votes in regular session, a similar bill was introduced in a special session called to find funding for health care programs.

GREEDY HEIRS

They also said it would be abused by greedy heirs pressuring elderly people to end their lives prematurely. But supporters of the new law said such problems have not occurred in Oregon.

In the past 17 years in Oregon, doctors have written 1,173 prescriptions; 752 patients have used the medication to die and 421 have chosen not to use it, said Patricia A. Gonzalez-Portillo of Compassion & Choices. It is also allowed in Washington, Vermont and Montana, although in Montana it was by a court decision.

California voters in 1992 rejected a broader proposal that would have allowed physicians to administer lethal injections to the terminally sick. Bills offering patients the right to obtain deadly drug doses failed in the Legislature in 2005, 2006 and 2007.

 - MCT

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