Editorial: California’s historic and successful right-to-die law is itself on life-support

In this Sept. 24, 2015, file photo, Dan Diaz holds a photo of his late wife, Brittany Maynard, during a rally calling for California Gov. Jerry Brown to sign right-to-die legislation at the Capitol in Sacramento. A state judge threw out the law Tuesday.
(Rich Pedroncelli / AP)

California’s right-to-die law is nothing less than historic, certainly one of the most important pieces of legislation passed in the last several years. More than 100 people have used it to take their own lives since it was approved in 2015. Families have said repeatedly that the law has brought comfort to their relatives who took advantage of it, in many cases by offering an alternative to pain and suffering.

Furthermore, it has wide backing. A 2015 UC Berkeley survey of Californians found that three-fourths of respondents said they support the right of terminally ill patients to end their lives. That included majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independent voters.

But this important, compassionate and, by all measures, successful law was overturned Monday by a judge in Riverside County.


The legal problem isn’t with the law itself, which sets sensible, protective and moderate rules to ensure that terminally ill people are not coerced or persuaded to end their lives. It assures them that after multiple examinations and determination by a doctor that they have less than six months to live, they can seek help to obtain medication that will let them die without pain. It ensures that the patients are fully capable of making the decision for themselves.

There are no indications that the law has been misused in any way. Quite the opposite. It has spurred vital end-of-life conversations between patients and their healthcare providers that have led many to decide on options other than ending their lives.

A 2017 article in the Times reported that many of those patients simply needed adjustments in their pain medications but didn’t realize it until they brought up the topic of exercising their right to die. Others opted to enter hospice care earlier. In other words, the bill is working exactly as hoped for and even better: Patients with many different beliefs and concerns gain more information and more control over how they will face the last stages of their lives in whatever way is right for them.

What made the law vulnerable to a challenge in court was the legislative sausage-making that went into its passage. After the bill failed to win approval during the regular legislative session, it was revived during a special session convened to discuss ways to raise money for Medi-Cal. The state Constitution requires legislators to stick to the specific agenda of a special session so that it isn’t used to rush failed bills into law without hearings and careful consideration.

Lawmakers walked a fine line with this bill. The context of the session was clear: funding healthcare. But the governor’s proclamation for the special session also made a brief reference to improving the health of Californians, and the assisted-death bill certainly falls within the realm of providing healthcare that many people see as an improvement. And obviously the bill wasn’t rushed into existence; it’s hard to think of a more thoroughly debated and discussed piece of legislation.

The path to passage was less than ideal, but in our view it was legal. Unfortunately, Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Ottolia this week chose a more narrow interpretation and dealt a shocking blow both to the law and to terminally ill Californians who may have been counting on it.

It would be a terrible next chapter if this ruling is allowed to deprive Californians of the right to make such an extraordinarily important decision for themselves. With luck, the ruling will be quickly overturned on appeal. If not, the Legislature should move immediately to pass a new bill. We understand and respect the objections of the Roman Catholic Church and others who deplore such laws, but their religious beliefs should not overrule the views and desires of the majority of Californians.

Despite the brouhaha over the special session, Gov. Jerry Brown decided to sign the bill when it came to him in 2015. Here’s his eloquent explanation: “In the end, I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death. 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. And I wouldn’t deny that right to others.”

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