Sacramento, Calif. – For the first time in five tries since 1995, the California legislature has passed a bill to allow terminally ill adults facing unbearable suffering the option to request a doctor’s prescription for medication that they could take to painlessly die in their sleep.
The Senate passed the bill, called the End of Life Option Act (ABX2-15), by a vote of 23 to 14. On Wed., the Assembly passed AB2-15 with bipartisan support 44 to 35. Gov. Jerry Brown has 12 days to sign or veto the bill after he receives it from the legislature, which is expected to be the end of next week. If he takes no action in 12 days, the legislation automatically becomes law.
“Passing this historic bill is a monumental victory for terminally ill Californians like Christy O’Donnell who just a want a way to end horrific suffering in their final days,” said Compassion & Choices President Barbara Coombs Lee, a lawyer, former ER and ICU nurse and physician assistant who coauthored the Oregon Death With Dignity Act. “We are optimistic Gov. Brown will sign this law because he is a compassionate person who understands Californians in agony cannot wait another year.”
Dozens of supporters, some in wheelchairs with oxygen tanks, shed tears as legislators debated the issue on the Senate floor. Some closed their eyes as others held hands before the Senate passed the legislation.
“I thank our legislature for responding to the voices of terminally ill Californians who are pleading for the option of medical aid in dying,” said Compassion & Choices Campaign Director Toni Broaddus. “We urge Gov. Brown to sign this bill to give them this option to die peacefully if their end-of-life suffering is too great to endure.”
The End of Life Option Act was co-authored by Assemblymember Susan Talamantes Eggman, Senate Majority Leader Bill Monning and Senate Majority Whip Lois Wolk.
“Yesterday I was visited in my office by Christy O’Donnell, who has been a warrior for this cause while fighting terminal cancer, and all I can think of now is of her, of her struggle, of her daughter, of their courage and strength, and the comfort that I hope that we have provided to her, and the many more for whom she has been called to speak so powerfully,” said Assemblymember Eggman. “This is their day.”
The news brought tears to the eyes of Christy O’Donnell, a 47-year-old single mother from Santa Clarita dying from lung, brain, spine, rib and liver cancer, who testified in support of the bill before the Senate and the Assembly. Unfortunately, her doctors say she will likely die painfully within the next few months from the rapidly spreading cancer.
“The second win today in the Senate reaffirms to my daughter, Bailey, and I that our legislators are finally listening and ‘representing’ us — the thousands of terminally ill Californians,” she said. “Bailey and I are crying tears of joy! I do not want my daughter to carry with her forever the emotionally damaging memory of watching me die painfully over several days or weeks. I ask the governor NOW to open his heart and mind to signing this bill.”
Senator Monning thanked legislators for “listening to the overwhelming public sentiment supporting this issue and responding with a sense of compassion and urgency.”
Senator Wolk also urged the governor to sign the bill.
“I trust the governor to recognize the importance, urgency and significance of this legislation and to answer the pleadings of those terminally ill Californians who want this option and the strong majority of all Californians who support making it available,” she said.
The legislature’s passage of the End of Life Option Act comes 10 months after the death of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old Californian with terminal brain cancer. She brought international attention to this issue when she had to move to Oregon to utilize its death-with-dignity law last November. In the final weeks of her life, Maynard and her family partnered with Compassion & Choices to launch a campaign on Oct. 6, 2014, to make aid in dying an open and accessible medical option.
“I am very grateful to the senators who have honored Brittany’s dying wish by voting to give other dying Californians facing intolerable suffering the option to die painlessly and peacefully as she did,” said Maynard’s husband, Dan Diaz, who lives in Alamo. Diaz testified before the Assembly last week in support of the End of Life Option Act and has met with legislators urging them to vote for the bill since the introduction of the first version of the legislation, SB-128, in January.
“Brittany would be very proud if Gov. Brown signs this bill and her home state becomes the first state to pass medical aid-in-dying legislation since she died.”
Maynards’s mother, Debbie Ziegler, stood in disbelief as senators cast their vote. She broke into tears as her husband, Gary Holmes, assured her the vote tally was final.
“How does one say thank you to legislators who offered the option of a peaceful death to terminally ill patients who face a prolonged and agonizing death?” said Ziegler, who lives in Carlsbad. She has testified before the Senate in support of the End of Life Option Act and also has met with lawmakers one-on-one urging them to vote for the bill since its introduction in January. “From the bottom of my heart and in memory of my daughter, Brittany, thank you, kind statesmen and women.”
The End of Life Option Act is closely modeled after the death-with-dignity law in Oregon, which has worked well for 17 years, without a single documented case of abuse or coercion. Currently, three other states authorize medical aid in dying: Washington, Montana and Vermont.**
(**According to Montanans Against Assisted Suicide: Assisted Suicide is a homicide in Montana. The MT Supreme Court ruled that if a doctor is charged with a homicide they might have a potential defense based on consent. The Court did not address civil liabilities. No one in Montana has immunity from civil or criminal charges)
Three out of four Californians support the End of Life Option Act, including 82 percent of Democrats, 79 percent of independents and 67 percent of Republicans, according to a new poll released last week by the Institute of Governmental Studies (IGS) at the University of California, Berkeley. Yet, two decades after Oregon voters passed our nation’s first death-with-dignity law in 1997, California still has not authorized this end-of-life option.
Dr. Robert Olvera, a Harvard-trained physician from Santa Ana, caressed the photo of his 25-year-old daughter, Emily Rose, who suffered horribly from leukemia before her death in 2014.
“My daughter did not die in vain,” he said tearfully. “This is what she wanted for herself to end her suffering. Gov. Brown, please sign our bill and give dying Californians that option so they don’t have to suffer the way my daughter did.”
Compassion & Choices is the nation’s oldest and largest nonprofit organization working to improve care and expand choice at the end of life. www.compassionandchoices.org