California 'Death with Dignity' Advocates Launch New Campaign

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Jennifer Glass of San Mateo, undergoing chemotherapy last year for lung cancer. (Courtesy: Mary Thomas)
Jennifer Glass of San Mateo, undergoing chemotherapy last year for lung cancer. (Courtesy: Mary Thomas)

A new campaign is underway to legalize physician-assisted suicide in California. Advocates launched a series of online ads last week to begin raising awareness. Still, it could take years for the effort to yield any results.

Since the early 1990s, lawmakers and activists have tried and failed several times to pass a death with dignity law in California. Under such a law doctors could prescribe lethal medications to patients who are terminally ill. Oregon and Washington permit the practice.

“California is a large state. It’s a politically complicated state,” says Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion and Choices. Her advocacy group is leading the effort to try again to pass a law through the legislature or ballot proposition that would make aid in dying accessible in California.

Coombs Lee says most people want the prescription not to take the drug -- but just to have it.

“It’s having the medication that gives them the sense of comfort and control, peace of mind. They call it their security blanket, their insurance policy,” she says.

That’s what it comes down to for San Mateo resident Jennifer Glass. When she was diagnosed with lung cancer last year, her mind immediately raced to a vision of a messy, chaotic death.

“The idea that my life is going to end was not so frightening to me,” she says. “The idea that I might drown in my own lung fluid while my family watches me suffer. That is terrifying.

Glass, 50, says at least having the option of controlling when and how she dies would bring her peace.

“There’s nothing that can prepare you for when you’re doctor looks you in the eye and tells you, 'you have cancer,'” she says. “But having choice helps me feel I have some control over a situation that is uncontrollable.”

Her cancer is being managed now. But with California’s fraught history over this issue, it will take some time to see results.

“The time is now,” says Coombs Lee. “We all together have made a commitment  to see aid in dying accessible, transparent, available to Californians within five years.”

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