After a Blow in California, Death with Dignity Isn’t Dead

Death is inevitable. Morrie Schwartz, author and professor at Brandeis University, once called it “the great equalizer,” which is an apt description considering death is an unavoidable experience for everyone, regardless of one’s societal standing or economic class. However, while death is inevitable, many people who are experiencing severe and debilitating illnesses may understandably wish to exercise some control over the manner in which they die.

Death with dignity, also known as the right to die, is gaining some traction as a movement in the United States. This momentum was spurred considerably by twenty-nine-year-old Brittany Maynard, who, after being diagnosed with stage-four brain cancer, chose to voluntarily end her life in December 2014. It was a story that made headlines around the country. And this summer, the death with dignity movement appeared to make significant headway when the California State Senate passed SB 128, also known as the End of Life Options Act.

SB 128 would allow doctors in California to prescribe lethal medication to patients who are suffering from painful, terminal illnesses. It would also, much like Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act, make provisions for safeguards, mainly to prevent such drugs from being prescribed to patients who don’t want or request them. Further, no patient would be obligated to ask for the drugs, and no doctor would be required to prescribe them. The bill would make death with dignity an option for those seeking it, without infringing upon the rights of those whose who might be opposed for ethical reasons.

Unfortunately, on July 7 religious opposition to the bill prevailed, and lawmakers won’t be sending it to the Californian Assembly Health Committee. Many legislators who opposed SB 128 cited concerns that the bill either conflicted with their own personal faith or the Catholic faith practiced by many of their constituents. However, a recent poll by the advocacy group Compassion and Choices suggests that, if the bill were put to a vote, 69 percent of Californians would support it.

The End of Life Options Act takes nothing away from religious individuals or those who are uncomfortable with medically assisted death for other reasons. It does, however, provide a choice for those who are courageously facing the inevitable and want to end their suffering and their families’ suffering on their own terms. For this reason, many humanists see the right to die as a compassionate act and the means to giving an anguished person some control over their inescapable end. And because humanists eschew the notion of an afterlife, many may feel that saying goodbye to loved ones or dying in a place of comfort are important things to pursue in the final moments of life. Sadly, Californians who wish to make this choice for themselves will currently be unable to do so.

While the bill has been stalled in California, it has not been defeated. The bill’s author, California State Senator Bill Monning, stated in a press release that he would continue to work with legislators in the California Assembly to refine the language of the bill, so that they could feel comfortable passing it when it’s reintroduced. Right to die advocates, in California and across the United States, aren’t giving up yet.