California legislature passes right-to-die bill

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Screen Shot 2015-09-20 at 3.16.14 PMAfter being diagnosed with brain cancer, 29-year-old Brittany Maynard wrote a piece for CNN in November 2014 describing her fight against the terminal illness titled “My right to die with dignity at 29.” She explained that she “had a partial craniotomy and a partial resection of the temporal lobe” to slow the tumor’s growth, only to have it eventually resurge much more aggressively. She then revealed that she had six months to live and that upon research, she discovered that all efforts to slow the tumor had debilitating side effects that she felt would ruin her final days alive.

It is this situation that would eventually lead to Maynard’s interest in and advocacy for the Death With Dignity movement and legal physician-aided suicide programs that are currently available in just three states: Oregon, Washington and Vermont. Maynard’s piece described her decision to move to Oregon and have a physician-assisted death. In it, she described how happy she was to enjoy her last few months with her family without having to worry about an agonizing death in her future.

After the piece was published, Maynard became an advocate for the Compassion and Choices campaign that works to legalize Death With Dignity in all states.

“When my suffering becomes too great, I can say to all those I love, ‘I love you; come be by my side, and come say goodbye as I pass into whatever’s next,'” Maynard wrote. “I will die upstairs in my bedroom with my husband, mother, stepfather and best friend by my side and pass peacefully. I can’t imagine trying to rob anyone else of that choice.”

Maynard eventually had the peaceful, assisted death she described, and it was through her death that she was able to bring the concept of physician-assisted suicide an unprecedented amount of attention. Through her piece that described her final moments spent adventuring and her death, Maynard put a national spotlight on a controversial question: Is death a right?

Many seem to think the answer is yes. There are proposed bills in both California and New York that seek to legalize physician-assisted death. In California specifically, the End of Life Option Act has been passed through the California Assembly as well as the State Senate and now needs only the approval of Gov. Jerry Brown to sign it into law.

Here is where the fate of the bill becomes increasingly unclear: Brown has never stated his stance on physician-aided suicide, and even though California’s State Assembly and Senate gave the End of Life Option Act a greenlight, the governor is known not to give in to the opposition, even if it that opposition is overwhelming.

“One thing that’s clear, he’s not going to make this decision based on political pressures,” Thad Kousser, a political science professor at UC-San Diego said in an interview with TIME. “This is a guy who quotes philosophers at cocktail parties. His moral compass is complex and he’s not going to be looking over his shoulder at the polls.”

Brown now must decide for himself whether signing the End of Life Act is in the best interest of his constituents.

Considering the importance of this bill and the Death With Dignity movement, it is vital for all American citizens to consider this difficult question as well. According to the Washington Times, much of the opposition to this bill stems from the Catholic Church, which has historically been a vehemently pro-life institution.

However, there are secular reasons for one to question physician-assisted suicide. “It is particularly troubling that in this rush to judgment, proponents are linking this bill with health care financing,” Tim Rosales, a spokesman for Californians Against Suicide, said in a Washington Times interview. “That should be truly frightening to those on MediCal and subsidized health care, who quite logically fear a system where prescribing suicide pills could be elevated to a treatment option.”

Still, the current assisted-death programs that exist in Oregon, Vermont and Washington are careful to ensure that assisted death is not an option that is abused. Oregon, for example, checks that patients do not have a history of depression or other mental influences that might affect their decisions.

There are other safeguards and intricate procedures that make sure patients who elect to have a physician- assisted death are terminally ill beyond all help. According to the Death With Dignity National Center, patients in Vermont, Oregon and Washington who undergo assisted suicide must meet five criteria: be at least 18 years old, a resident of the state, be “capable of making and communicating health decisions for him/herself,” be diagnosed with a terminal illness and have a life expectency of six months or less.

Additionally, terminally-ill patients that opt for physician-assisted suicide are required to make multiple requests to their physician, can change their mind even after getting approval from the physician and must be able to administer and ingest the medication on their own.

The safeguards appear to be working.According to a 2014 report by the Oregon Public Health Division, while assisted death has been legal in the state since 1997, only 1,327 people have received assisted-suicide prescriptions. Of those people, 859 died from the medication.

Among those that did ingest the prescriptions, none were reported to have regained consciousness or suffered any sort of struggle.

The low amount of people that actually partake in this practice is encouraging as it dismisses the ideas that legalizing physician-assisted suicide would lead to some kind of suicide culture. Furthermore, the many safeguards and precautions help legitimize it as a practical and safe medical practice.

Considering all of these precautions, the question of whether death should be a right becomes one that is subjective and primarily reliant on moral and ideological principles. The subjectivity of these principles is exactly why death should be considered a right. Those who consider this practice immoral are not forced to practice it themselves and their beliefs should not prohibit one’s choice of ending suffering in a dismal situation such as the one Maynard experienced.

While it is important for society to preserve and appreciate life, that should not force the terminally ill to endure the horrors of their final days. As unfortunate as it may be, all things—lives included—must come to an end. For people suffering from a terminal illness, it seems only fair to let them choose how their story ends.