California Governor Signs Physician-Assisted Suicide Bill Into Law

California Governor Jerry Brown in a file photo from April 2015.  (David McNew/Getty Images)

California Gov. Jerry Brown signed landmark legislation today allowing terminally ill patients to obtain lethal medication to end their lives when and where they choose.

In a deeply personal note, Brown said he read opposition materials carefully, but in the end was left to reflect on what he would want in the face of his own death.

"I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain," he wrote. "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."

One of the key co-authors of the legislation, Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, said the signing “marks a historic day in California” and called the governor’s thoughts “a powerful statement.”

Brown’s signature concludes a hotly contested, 10-month debate that elicited impassioned testimony from lawmakers, cancer patients who fear deaths marked by uncontrollable pain and suffering, and religious and disability advocates who fear coercion and abuse.

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Marg Hall, an advocate with the Bay Area disability rights group Communities United in Defense of Olmstead, said she was "disappointed" and "worried."

"Given the level of dysfunction and injustice that exists currently in our health care system, with many people without insurance still, with the very underfunded ability of people to have choices for treatment and care, adding this very potentially dangerous tool to the mix is of great concern to people with disabilities," Hall said.

Marilyn Golden, senior policy analyst with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund strongly opposed the new law and said it lacked safeguards and that abusive heirs or caregivers could “steer” patients toward assisted suicide.

The new law requires two doctors to determine that a patient has six months or less to live before prescribing the drugs. Patients must be physically able to swallow the medication themselves and must have the mental capacity to make medical decisions.

One of the meetings must be private, with only the patient and the physician present, a requirement aimed at ensuring the patient is acting independently, Monning said. Patients must also reaffirm in writing that they intend to take the medication within 48 hours of doing so.

Golden called these safeguards “hollow.” She said none of the states that have legalized this option require a witness at the death. When asked if opponents would be monitoring implementation of the law to ensure there is no abuse, she said her group “is not taking any options off the table right now.”

Perhaps the most visible face of passage of this law is Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old California woman who suffered from terminal brain cancer and moved to Oregon explicitly because it permits aid-in-dying. Maynard used the law to end her life last November.

In an interview with KQED on Monday, her widower, Dan Diaz, said he felt “an enormous sense of gratitude” upon passage of the law in California. He said his wife would have felt “relief … for all terminally ill Californians that they have that bit of control.”

Elizabeth Wallner, 51, a stage 4 colon cancer patient in Sacramento, said she felt a “a great sense of relief. … I don’t want to die,” she said, but “having the option is really powerful.”

The law started out as SB128, a bill introduced in January. That bill cleared the senate floor, but ultimately stalled in the Assembly in July. The authors introduced a similar bill in August during the special legislative session called by Brown this summer.

The law will take effect sometime in 2016, 91 days after the special legislative session concludes. At present, the special session is ongoing and does not have an end date scheduled.

When the law goes into effect, California will become the fifth state to allow physician-assisted suicide, along with Oregon, Washington, Montana and Vermont. The practice was permitted in New Mexico until August, when an appeals court reversed a lower court ruling establishing physician-assisted suicide as a fundamental right.

Advocates have appealed the case to the state Supreme Court, and a hearing is set for later this month.

The California law is set to expire in 10 years, unless the Legislature passes another law to extend it.

Read the governor's full statement:

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