July 2, 2012, must have been one of the worst days of Bill Bentinck’s 87 years. His wife of 25 years, who was in hospice care at home, had finally had enough of her painful struggle with terminal emphysema and decided to remove her breathing tube. She asked him not to allow anyone to resuscitate her. He honored her wishes and she ended her pain.
And then the day got worse. The Palm Springs man was arrested by police on suspicion of homicide — for allowing his dying wife to die — and held for three days in jail before the charges were dropped.
It’s an appalling tale of overkill, but sadly not uncommon. Despite a profound shift in public acceptance of aid-in-dying laws in the two decades since Oregon first passed its Death with Dignity Act, all but two other states — Washington and Vermont — still consider it a crime for dying people to hasten their inevitable demise.
There’s a chance that could change in California as soon as this year, thanks to Brittany Maynard and proposed legislation. After the 29-year-old Bay Area woman was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer last year, she moved with her new husband to Oregon in order to use that state’s Death with Dignity law and thus avoid the horrible and painful end cancer had in store for her. She also chose to make her story public and use her last months to advocate for more laws allowing dying people the ability to determine their final days. She died, as she had planned, on Nov. 1.
The stories of Maynard and Bentinck, among others, are what moved Democratic California Sens. Lois Wolk of Davis and Bill Monning of Carmel to author a bill to stop the criminalization of aid-in-dying. The bill is is modeled on Oregon’s Death with Dignity Law, which allows a person diagnosed with six months or less to live to request a lethal dose of medication from a physician to be self-administered.
Called the End of Life Option Act, the Wolk-Monning bill has all the provisions of Oregon’s law: a waiting period before a patient can get a prescription for life-ending medication; a second doctor must confirm the diagnosis; and the ability of doctors to opt out, among others. The Wolk-Monning measure also includes extra protections for physicians and pharmacists from prosecution.
Similar legislation has been introduced in California before, and failed because of opposition from the Catholic Church, on religious grounds; the California Medical Association, for professional reasons; and from disability activists, who fear aid-in-dying laws are at the top of a slippery slope ending in coerced suicide of people with disabilities.
But times have changed and so have attitudes, not only because of Maynard’s compelling tale. Last summer a survey conducted for Compassion & Choices, an organization advocating for aid-in-dying laws, found that 64% of Californians polled favor a Death with Dignity Act. That shift probably has as much to do with the aging baby boomers’ inclination toward self-determination as the fact that Oregon hasn’t experienced any of the feared abuses of the law in its 18 years of existence. People, for the most part, even those who are dying, want to live as long they can bear it.
If this bill fails, there will almost surely be a measure on the 2016 ballot. A campaign already is in the works. That should be reason enough for the legislators to support this bill.
Laws crafted by legislation are preferable to ballot initiatives because problems can be worked out through the committee and hearing process. With initiatives, there are up-or-down votes, no matter their flaws.
Think of Proposition 215, the 1996 initiative that allowed for medical marijuana but didn’t outline the process for how this might happen. Pot dealers exploited the lack of details, resulting in a slew of unregulated dispensaries and no clear remedy for cities and communities to regulate them.
Dying people deserve the right to control the manner of their departure from this world. Legislators ought to approve the bill, so caring spouses such as Bill Bentinck don’t have to fear jail, and sick people like Brittany Maynard need not leave their homes and travel to Oregon to end their pain.