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In a rare personal message, California’s 77-year-old governor provided insight into his deliberations before deciding to sign a bill allowing terminally ill Californians to legally take their own lives, reflecting on religion and self-determination as he weighed an emotionally fraught choice.
Gov. Jerry Brown, a lifelong Catholic and former Jesuit seminarian, said he consulted a Catholic bishop, two of his own doctors and friends “who take varied, contradictory and nuanced positions.”
“In the end, I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death,” wrote the Democratic governor, who has been treated for prostate cancer and melanoma. “I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain. I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill.”
Brown’s signature on the right-to-die legislation Monday capped an intensely personal debate that dominated much of this year’s legislative session and divided lawmakers. Many lawmakers also drew on personal experience to explain their decisions to support or reject legislation making California the fifth state to allow terminally ill patients to use doctor-prescribed drugs to end their lives.
At the center of the debate was Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old California woman with brain cancer who drew national attention for her decision to move to Oregon to end her life.
In a video recorded days before Maynard took life-ending drugs, she told California lawmakers that the terminally ill should not have to “leave their home and community for peace of mind, to escape suffering and to plan for a gentle death.”
Maynard’s husband and mother were regular visitors to the Capitol, testifying at committee hearings and meeting with undecided lawmakers. Maynard’s mother, Debbie Ziegler, said Brown “listened with a compassionate heart and a discerning mind.”
Ziegler said in a statement that Brown’s decision “allows true principles of mercy to guide end-of-life care for the terminally ill in California.”
The measure applies only to mentally sound people and not those who are depressed or impaired. The bill includes requirements that patients be physically capable of taking the medication themselves, that two doctors approve it, that the patients submit several written requests and that there be two witnesses, one of whom is not a family member.
Supporters hope that adoption of right-to-die legislation in the nation’s most populous state will spur approval elsewhere, although legislation introduced this year in at least two dozen other states stalled. Doctors in Oregon, Washington, Vermont and Montana already can prescribe life-ending drugs.
The Catholic Church and advocates for people with disabilities opposed the legislation, saying it legalizes premature suicide and puts terminally ill patients at risk for coerced death. Opponents targeted Catholic Latino lawmakers, urging them to block its passage.
Opponents said Monday that they were disappointed the governor relied so heavily on his personal experience in his decision and that they were considering options to stop it.
As someone of wealth with access to the world’s best medical care, “the governor’s background is very different than that of millions of Californians living in health care poverty without that same access,” the group Californians Against Assisted Suicide said in a statement.
The passage of the bill by Assemblywoman Susan Eggman, D-Stockton, was the latest attempt to advance such legislation in California. A proposal earlier in the year stalled and the measure was brought back as part of a special session on health care. The law cannot take effect until the session formally ends, which probably will not happen until at least mid-2016.