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California governor signs assisted suicide bill

Physician-assisted dying will become legal in California under a bill signed into law on Monday (Oct. 5) by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.

The law, based on a similar measure in Oregon, allows terminally ill people to seek a doctor’s prescription for a lethal medication. As in Oregon, two doctors must agree the person has only six months to live and is mentally competent.

In a rare statement accompanying the signing notice, Brown, a former Roman Catholic seminarian, said he closely considered arguments on both sides of the controversial measure, which makes California only the fifth U.S. state to legalize assisted dying.

“I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain,” Brown said. “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.”

Compassion & Choices, the national group that led the campaign for the legislation, carried a statement from the group’s president, Barbara Coombs Lee, calling this “the biggest victory for the death-with-dignity movement since Oregon passed the nation’s first law two decades ago.”

The new law, which becomes effective Jan. 1, makes it a felony to pressure anyone into requesting or taking a lethal prescription.

The bill was strongly opposed by some religious groups, including the Roman Catholic Church, as well as advocates for people with disabilities, who said unscrupulous caregivers or relatives could pressure vulnerable patients to take their own lives.

Opponents also said the bill would invite insurance companies to take advantage of poor patients by offering to pay for the cost of life-ending drugs but not for the expensive treatments that could save lives.

Disability rights activist and evangelical author Joni Eareckson Tada called the legislation “ a form of abandonment.” As social policy, legalizing what she calls “suicide” is to “radicalize one’s right to privacy. It dresses up our willful determination as rights,” she said.

“Gov. Jerry Brown signed a dangerous bill making CA the fourth state to legalize assisted suicide. Gov. Brown said he signed the bill because he wouldn’t want to be “dying in prolonged and excruciating pain” in his final days — regardless of the fact that pain relief is readily available without killing patients,” said Tada in statement.

“But the truth is pain is not among the top reasons for why people choose assisted suicide. Instead, they are psychological issues which can be effectively treated.”

Tada suggests that rather than making it the “state’s responsibility to help despairing people kill themselves, let’s pour more effort into improving pain management therapies and strengthening the hospice movement.”

“Let’s lift people out of depression through compassionate care,” continued Tada.

“There is a deadly mix when you combine our broken health care system with assisted suicide, which immediately becomes the cheapest treatment,” said Marilyn Golden, a senior policy analyst at the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund in Berkeley, Calif. “The so-called protections written into the bill really amount to very little.”

As written, the law will expire after 10 years unless extended, a compromise with lawmakers who were worried about unintended consequences such as the targeting of the poor, elderly and disabled.

— by Cathy Lynn Grossman | RNS

Reuters and CNJ staff contributed to this report.

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