Transition Team

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A friend recently asked me to help him die. He had a terminal disease that wouldn't kill him quickly, and promised a terrible endgame. He knew that and wanted out. So I offered to help him.

We both knew that people had been arrested in California for doing what he was asking me to do, so we agreed to work within legal limits. But the relevant law is hopelessly vague and ambiguous. It says that "aiding" or "advising" someone who commits suicide is a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. However, it does not define "advice" or "aid." And it states that "encouraging" someone to commit suicide is a crime, but fails to say whether not discouraging them means they are being encouraged.

I sought advice from Attorney General Kamala Harris three times. I told her in detail what we intended to do and asked for a legal opinion. No response came, and my friend was becoming increasingly desperate, as pain and anxiety plagued him, and even the strongest of his medicines were failing.

He postponed death twice, but could no longer stand the agony. So we proceeded with our plan, hoping, but not knowing for sure, that what we were about to do was legal.

He managed and conducted his own death, without concrete assistance from anyone, particularly not his physician. But he did not want to die alone. So we were there with him, friends and family, holding his hands, saying goodbye through a flood of tears, and wondering as he slipped away, whether or not we should legally have discouraged him from doing something he so wanted to do. He called us his "Transition Team."


His humor and courage still astound me. But I remain baffled by laws surviving in an open and free society that make it so difficult for people facing horrible endings to choose the time and manner of their death, and to seek support if not overt assistance from friends, family and yes, from their physician.

With a Perspective, I'm Mark Dowie. 

Mark Dowie is an investigative historian living near Willow Point in Marin County.