Be brave, doctors

California’s new right-to-die law is on the books, but physicians aren’t on board

Everyone dies. We don’t like to discuss that fact, but death is a part of our journey.

Thankfully, now that the End of Life Option Act is on the books in California, it’s legal for doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of medication to certain patients looking to end their journey as peacefully and pain-free as possible.

The so-called right-to-die law is controversial, but needn’t be. That’s because it contains a number of restrictions to make sure it isn’t abused. Only adult patients with less than six months to live—who must be deemed mentally competent—would be able to procure such medicine legally, for example. They also must be able to self-administer the life-ending drugs. Gov. Jerry Brown signed the End of Life Option Act into law last October. It went into effect June 9.

The rub for those seeking such medication is that, at least locally, it’s going to be difficult for them to find physicians willing to write a prescription for it. Thus far, the local medical professionals CN&R has contacted have no leads on a doctor who’s taking up the cause.

Meanwhile, at least two local hospitals—Enloe Medical Center in Chico and Feather River Hospital in Paradise—are not participating. That’s not surprising considering the history of similar aid-in-dying laws in other states. Most of those who’ve ended their own lives choose to die at home under the care of a private physician (see “Death unassisted,” Healthlines, page 12). Still, it sets the tone.

We get it. Change is scary, especially when it comes to legalized assisted suicide. But the End of Life Option Act is a humane law. Take, for example, the case of Brittany Maynard, the Bay Area woman who had to move to Oregon to find doctors willing—and legally able—to prescribe the medicine that ended her life. There, the Death with Dignity Act has existed since the late 1990s. It’s an aptly named law to anyone who’s watched a friend or loved one suffer from a late-stage terminal disease.

The 29-year-old native Californian was wracked with pain, seizures and other effects of a growing web-like brain tumor, and she knew that her short remaining time on Earth would only get worse. She ended up dying peacefully in her sleep from legally procured prescription drugs, thanks to Oregon’s law. Interestingly, many of the Oregonians who have qualified for and filled a prescription for the lethal medication—roughly a third of patients—end up not using it.

Still, those who seek out the medication at least have the option to hasten their deaths. Perhaps having that control is enough for some people to allow their illness to take its full course. The point is, people should be allowed to choose the terms of their own death. We have no choice coming into this world, but we certainly deserve a say in how we leave it.

Maynard is a large part of why the Golden State now has a right-to-die law. Her story sparked renewed interest in and advocacy for the movement. Indeed, she was a pioneer. She was brave in the face of great controversy. Now it’s time for California doctors, locals included, to be brave as well by using the state’s new law as it was intended—to help patients seeking a humane, dignified death.