June 10 2015 12:27 PM

Brittany Maynard is sparking political action on right-to-die law

Supporters of SB 128
Photo courtesy of Compassion and Choices

From beyond the grave, one woman's story is moving California, and the nation, in the direction of right-to-die legislation.

Last week in Sacramento, the state Senate voted 23-14 to approve a bill that legalizes physician-assisted dying. The End of Life Option Act now moves to the state Assembly, where it must pass through two subcommittees before it can be brought to a full Assembly vote. If passed, the bill would then have to be signed by Gov. Jerry Brown to become California law.

It's the story of Brittany Maynard, and a video she recorded, that's moving the needle. Diagnosed with aggressive brain cancer, last year she chose to leave the Bay Area and move to Oregon, one of five states in the country where physicians are allowed to write lethal prescriptions for dying patients. Oregon's End of Life Option has been in place since 1997.

Maynard chose to end her life on November 1, 2014, 19 days before what would have been her 30th birthday. She was surrounded by friends and family, including her mother, San Diego native Debbie Ziegler, when she died.

Well before that day, Maynard had become an activist, and called on states all over the country to enact right-to-die legislation.

"I decided to share my story because I felt like this issue is misunderstood by many people in our community and culture," Maynard said in a video released in March and sponsored by activist group Compassion and Choices. "As I went through the process of being approved for Death With Dignity, I felt very valued by my physiciansand very protected. There's no way I could have possibly been coerced into this...It's not a fear-based choice. It's a logic-based choice."

California Senate Bill 128 specifically notes that the bill "provides peace of mind and control for terminally ill Californians while safeguarding against coercion for those who are vulnerable." Legislation would apply to mentally competent adults with six months or fewer to live.

Debate on the floor of the state Senate was personal and passionate. Maynard's mother and widower were there in the Senate chamber, armed with photos of Brittany.

Republican senators questioned the morality of the legislation. Among those arguing against the bill was Sen. Joel Anderson (R-San Diego), who's running for a seat on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. Anderson was emotional as he recalled thoughts of suicide he had while temporarily disabled; and of his mother, who was diagnosed with cancer and given weeks, but lived for years.

Senator: Under the proposed bill, temporarily disabled does not equal terminal; and physician-assisted death would not be mandatory for cancer patients.

A Compassion and Choices spokesperson points to a May 2015 Gallup poll that suggests support from the public for Death With Dignity laws has spiked by 20 points during the past two years.

The Gallup survey shows 68 percent of Americans agree that, "Individuals who are terminally ill, in great pain and who have no chance of recovery, have the right to choose to end their own life."

Support also seems to be growing in the medical community. A December 2014 Medscape poll of 17,000 U.S. doctors showed 54 percent agreed (compared to 31 percent who disagreed) with the notion of making an end-of-life decision available to terminal patients.

Since Maynard's death, legislators in 24 states and the District of Columbia have introduced Death With Dignity bills, according to Compassion and Choices.

In California, Gov. Brown reportedly confirmed he met with Maynard before she died, but Brown has not indicated he would sign the bill if it hits his desk.

Read more about a San Diego group that holds regular public meetings on this topic in the "Checking out, permanently" feature. See if you agree that people in pain who face a limited time left on earth deserve choice, dignity and control at the end of their lives.

Write to rond@sdcitybeat.com


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