California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has signed into law a controversial measure that allows physicians to help terminally ill patients legally end their lives, making California the fourth state to permit doctor-assisted suicide through its legislature.
Gov. Brown, a former seminary student, approved the End of Life Option Act Oct. 5, after state lawmakers passed the bill Sept. 11.
In a signing message, Gov. Brown said that he had considered all sides of the issue and carefully weighed religious and theological perspectives that shortening a patient’s life is sinful.
“In the end, I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death,” Gov. Brown said in the 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.”
Modeled after Oregon’s statute, California’s law requires two doctors to determine that a patient has 6 months or less to live before doctors could prescribe life-ending medication. Patients must have the mental capacity to make medical decisions and would physically have to be able to swallow the drugs.
In addition, patients seeking physician aid in dying must submit two oral requests, a minimum of 15 days apart, and a written request to their physician. The attending physician must receive all three requests directly from the patient and not through a designee. Before prescribing end-of-life drugs, the attending physician must refer the patient to a consulting physician for confirmation of the diagnosis and prognosis and of the patient’s capacity to make the decision.
Oregon, Vermont, and Washington each have laws permitting physician-assisted death. Court rulings in New Mexico and Montana have allowed for the practice, but litigation in those states is ongoing and the decisions have yet to be enforced.
The signing ends nearly a year of passionate debate in California that divided physicians, religious groups, lawmakers, and community members. In May, the California Medical Association (CMA) became the first state medical society to change its stance against physician-assisted suicide to that of being neutral.
“The decision to participate in the End of Life Option Act is a very personal one between a doctor and their patient, which is why CMA has removed policy that outright objects to physicians aiding terminally ill patients in end of life options,” Dr. Luther F. Cobb, CMA president, said in a statement. “We believe it is up to the individual physician and their patient to decide voluntarily whether the End of Life Option Act is something in which they want to engage. Protecting that physician-patient relationship is essential.”
The California law will take effect 90 days after the state legislature adjourns its special session on health care, which may not be until early next year. The earliest likely enactment would be spring 2016.
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