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death with dignity
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Kahnert

California to permit assisted suicide

October 6, 2015

Governor Jerry Brown has signed legislation to let terminally ill people take their own lives in California. It will become the fifth US state to allow dying patients to use doctor-prescribed drugs to end their lives.


Physician-assisted suicide will become legal in California in 2016 under a bill signed into law on Monday by Governor Jerry Brown. The 77-year-old Democrat and lifelong Catholic and former Jesuit seminarian said he had acted after discussing the issue with many people, including two of his own doctors. The South African archbishop and rights icon Desmond Tutu had spoken out in favor of it.

"I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain," Brown said in a statement released Monday. "I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill."

Brown said he wouldn't deny those comforts to others. The law cannot take effect until 90 days after the California legislature's special session on health care formally ends, effectively delaying its implementation until at least mid-2016.

'A gentle death'

A version of the bill failed earlier this year despite publicity surrounding Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old with brain cancer who left California for Oregon in 2014 to legally end her life. Her mother, Debbie Ziegler, testified in committee hearings and carried a large picture of her daughter.

Maynard had pleaded that terminally ill people shouldn't have to "leave their home and community for peace of mind, to escape suffering and to plan for a gentle death."

The Catholic Church and other groups alleged that the measure would legalize premature suicide and put terminally ill patients at risk for coerced death. However, the bill includes requirements that patients submit multiple written requests for the medication, that two doctors approve it if the patient has less than six months to live, that patients physically take the medication themselves and that two witnesses observe the death.

The bill's advocates had tried for decades to persuade California to legalize the practice as a way to help end-stage cancer sufferers and other patients to die with less pain and suffering. Since 1992, similar measures had failed several times in the legislature or the ballot box before the current bill passed the State Assembly, 44-35, and Senate, 23-14, last month. As presently written, the law will expire after 10 years unless extended, a compromise with lawmakers who had worried that insurance companies might target low-income Californians, the elderly and people with disabilities to save costs.

At least two dozen states introduced right-to-die legislation this year, though the measures have stalled in several. Doctors in the states of Oregon, Washington, Vermont and Montana can already prescribe life-ending drugs.

Over the summer, Germany's parliament opened debate on physician-assisted suicide, but the movement to allow more access to life-ending options has come up against language in the constitution.

mkg/cmk (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)