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California Bill Would Allow Terminally Ill to End Their Own Lives

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Brittany Maynard, 29, terminally ill with brain cancer, ended her own life on Nov. 1, 2014. (Compassion and Choices/BrittanyFund.org)
Brittany Maynard, 29, terminally ill with brain cancer, ended her own life on Nov. 1, 2014.
(Compassion and Choices/BrittanyFund.org)

By April Dembosky

State lawmakers are renewing a call to give terminally ill patients more say over how and when they die. Senators Lois Wolk of Davis and Bill Monning of Santa Cruz introduced the "End of Life Option Act" on Wednesday. The bill would allow physicians to prescribe lethal medication to patients who request it.

“Seeing a daughter suffer and die slowly is torture,” said Robert Olvera, whose daughter, Emily Rose, died of leukemia last year at age 25.

The last four months of her life, she was bedridden, blind, and plagued by excruciating headaches that no medicine would alleviate. Olvera, a doctor, says his daughter wished she'd had the option to end her own life.

“'Give me some pills, so I can go to sleep, Daddy. No one should have to live like this,'” Olvera remembers his daughter saying. “She suffered horribly as I sat next to her not being able to do anything.”


The new bill, SB128, would allow California doctors to prescribe lethal medication to patients like Olvera’s daughter. It would require two doctors to confirm that the patient is mentally competent and unlikely to live more than six months. Patients would have to be able to take the drugs themselves without assistance.

But opponents fear that some older patients could be coerced into taking the drugs.

“Not all families are happy families, and there’s an epidemic of elder and disability abuse,” said Marilyn Golden, senior policy analyst with the Disability Rights and Education Defense Fund.

She says the bill might create a problem with insurance companies, too.

“Direct coercion isn’t even necessary. If insurers deny or even merely delay expensive life-sustaining treatment, patients will, in essence, be steered towards doctor-prescribed suicide,” she said.

If the bill passes, California would become one of six states that allow “aid in dying,” including Montana, Vermont, New Mexico, Washington and Oregon. Data from those last two states show few people actually ask for or take the drugs. In Oregon in 2013, doctors prescribed the drugs to 122 people; 71 actually took them.

California lawmakers have attempted -- and failed -- several times to pass similar laws over the last two decades. But they believe now is the time to try again, particularly as momentum crests from the story of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year old woman terminally ill with brain cancer who moved to Oregon last year to take advantage of the law there. Public opinion polls show increasing support for a law in California.

“Maynard, said, ‘I don’t have a suicidal bone in my body. I want to live. But I have terminal cancer that will kill me. Within that death sentence, I choose to have options and to set the terms and conditions of my inevitable death,’ ” Sen. Monning said. “In respect of her courage, we think the End of Life Option Act is appropriate.”

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