Assisted Dying: California’s Tipping Point Arrives

“Science progresses one funeral at a time.” – German physicist Max Planck

No other death has so profoundly changed the way we perceive the dying process as that of Brittany Maynard, the young California woman who insisted on the right to die on her own terms by moving to Oregon, where she could legally end her suffering from terminal brain cancer.

In the wake of Maynard’s assisted death last November – she was prescribed medication she took herself – an astounding 24 states, including California, have launched assisted dying legislation. This flurry of activity has shocked even leading supporters of the movement.

“When we talked about this a year ago, nobody thought we’d wind up in this position,” says Toni Broaddus, California campaign director for Compassion & Choices, the country’s leading advocate for the assisted dying movement. “We were not prepared for Brittany Maynard’s story to have such a huge impact.”

And with it, a huge impact on California.

In a surprising twist nobody could have foreseen, Californians can now expect Gov. Jerry Brown to sign assisted dying legislation by the end of the year, making California the nation’s fourth state to sanction assisted dying. (The others are Oregon, Washington and Vermont.)

How could this turnaround happen so fast?

Maynard’s death brought assisted dying into American living rooms, spurring family discussions – often for the first time – and opening wide the taboo topic. No longer theoretical or intellectual, Maynard made it highly personal.

Opinion polls in favor of assisted dying have skyrocketed since Maynard’s death, with the Gallup at nearly 70% in support – a jump of nearly 20 points in the past two years.

In short, Americans are now openly craving dignified death on their own terms – a desperate desire to say goodbye with a clear mind rather than wracked by overwhelming pain, barely conscious, gasping for that final breath.

With the state Senate’s passage earlier this month of the End of Life Option Act, only two obstacles lie ahead: passage in the Assembly, and the signature of Gov. Brown, who once trained to be a Jesuit priest and is still active within the Catholic Church.

Why will this legislation become law? Let’s start with Brown.

Although he retains his legendary prickly demeanor, Brown has softened with age, becoming a kinder, gentler governor. At 77, he’s seen friends and families struggle with terminal illness. He’s also the same man who dated rock stars, experienced the counterculture’s New Age acceptance of death, and volunteered with Mother Teresa to help her feed, comfort and shower the dying.

Finally, his ties to Jesuit life follow the faith’s more practical and progressive spirit.

Theologian Dan Maguire of Jesuit-based Marquette University, author of the book “Death By Choice,” is convinced Brown will sign the bill. He cites the little known yet critical Catholic teaching Probabilism, which marries faith with the informed skepticism and dissent of pragmatists.

“Pragmatism is necessary for survival,” says Maguire, who could well be describing political life. “Facing the complexity of life requires some accommodations.”

Deep down, Brown believes in the rights of Californians to practice their religious beliefs as they see fit. (Catholics, if opposed, could choose not to take this option.)

Yet no other behavior tips Brown’s hand as much as this: he spoke with Maynard before her death. One can only imagine the conversation they had, with a terminally ill Maynard certainly – and emotionally — asking Brown to support assisted dying legislation. Many believe that by agreeing to speak with Maynard, Brown quietly and simply revealed his support.

Maynard’s death also appears to have had a powerful impact on one of California’s richest and most powerful lobbying groups: the California Medical Association. Once staunchly opposed to any form of assisted dying, the association has been instrumental in the defeat of similar legislation three times dating back to 1992.

Yet after Maynard’s death blanketed the news, the association cited internal negotiations – and revisions to the proposed Act allowing doctors to opt out – for declaring itself “neutral” on the current legislation.

The surprising passage of the End of Life Option Act in the Senate – due in large part to CMA’s neutrality – indicates similar hope in the Assembly.

The terminally ill are perhaps our most acute experts on assisted dying itself, and they report something surprising: simply filling the prescription and having the medication nearby that would end their life provides a healing balm for the endless fear and anxiety that come with terminal illness and pain. It provides instant relief to the insistent questions “How bad will it get and how much more will I suffer?”

In larger society, discussions about death and dying are becoming increasingly prevalent. Dotting the country are Death Cafes where citizens meet monthly to discuss death and dying in a safe and supportive environment. Living funerals, home funerals, and green burials are slowly becoming mainstream.

When Planck poignantly observed that “Science progresses one funeral at a time,” he was, of course, talking about the death of scientists with outdated theories.

Yet today, the quote from Planck (who won a Nobel Prize in 1918 for his theory of quantum physics) signals social movements like Civil Rights and gay marriage, which have both advanced as a younger generation with more progressive attitudes took root.

The same evolution is happening with assisted dying.

The stony face of Jack Kevorkian – nicknamed “Dr. Death” in the 1980’s – has been replaced by the serene beauty of Brittany Maynard. The terms “euthanasia” and “assisted suicide” have been replaced by the more accurate – and humane – “assisted dying.”

There is no going back.

Yet there does remain one final question – one rarely addressed. What is the expected number of assisted deaths in our Golden State?  Last year, there were 160 assisted deaths in Oregon and Washington – states with a combined population of about 11 million.

With California nearing 40 million people – close to four times Oregon and Washington – will that mean over 600 assisted deaths a year?

If so, that will mean 600 terminal Californians grateful for the freedom to die here, at home, when they choose, surrounded by the loving faces of families and friends.

Someone like Michael Saum, 35, a former professional trombonist who received his Sociology degree in 2012 before the brain cancer previously in remission last year returned with a vengeance. As he’s become sicker each day the past two months, he craves the choice open to Maynard.

“Waking up every day sick, I would definitely choose that right now,” says Saum. “God would not have made it possible to end our lives on our own terms if he was not OK with it.”

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