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Oregon passed the Death with Dignity Act 20 years ago, and it was enacted in 1997. Why don’t we have such a law in California?

Toni Broaddus

Toni Broaddus

Toni Broaddus of Compassion & Choices gave a talk on Saturday to the Humanist Society of Santa Barbara telling us the history and her hope that we can soon have such a law.

The case of 29-year-old brain tumor patient Brittany Maynard is putting this front and center in the news. As a young, attractive woman with a supportive family, she stepped forward to promote the cause.

Her six-minute video accompanies this article. In just a few weeks it had 8 million views, and the C&C website was overwhelmed for a while.

Brittany and her husband moved from California to Oregon just to have the peace of mind of knowing she has the option to end her life on her own terms, rather than waiting for the tumor to cause intolerable pain and complete loss of control.

The Oregon law is quite conservative. It requires a doctor to certify the patient is mentally competent and has a terminal illness with less than six months to live. The doctor can prescribe medication for the patient to take to end his or her own life. The doctor does not assist.

Between one-half and one-third of patients don’t use the meds. Having the meds gives all of them a sense of control, though.

California has tried six times for such a law. Twice by proposition. One time they failed to get enough signatures. The other one lost. Four more times it was tried in the Legislature. The last time was 2007.

Politicians are usually followers, Broaddus explained. It is up to the people to lead. A C&C poll shows that 64 percent of Californians support the right to die with dignity. Overall U.S. figures are similar.

Who opposes the law? The California Medical Association and the California Conference of Bishops.

The church went after Latino legislators in the past. Called them out at Mass. Threatened with possible excommunication.

Many doctors do support end-of-life choices. The classic Hippocratic Oath seemed to forbid taking a life. But the current 1964 version does not. It just says to “tread with care in matters of life and death”. It also emphasizes the importance of “sympathy and understanding.”

Disability rights organizations are also concerned. Broaddus thinks this is misplaced. Many disabled people want this choice.

For many, palliative care works. But for some, pain can be untreatable and unendurable.

People can be arrested and put in jail for minor roles in a person ending his own life. 60 Minutes had a segment on Barbara Mancini in Pennsylvania. She had handed her father his morphine which he took for pain relief. He drank the whole bottle and she followed his directive not to send him to the hospital. She was arrested and he was sent to the emergency room against his wishes. He suffered greatly in mental distress for several days until he died.

Broaddus is optimistic that the time is right to pass the Oregon law in California. They selected Santa Barbara as an important action center. It is not “too easy” like San Francisco or Berkeley. Nor is it impossibly conservative.

Cecily Hintzen was hired to coordinate action in Santa Barbara.

Action will happen at all levels. Locally, prosecutors are asked not to prosecute such cases. Doctors and nurses are being asked to stand up and say the California Medical Association does not speak for them. At a state level, the hope is for a law.

Our own Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson is a great advocate and is one of the few who met with C&C in person in Sacramento. She shared her own personal story.

Small choices of wording can matter a lot, as C&C’s polls indicate. “Death with Dignity” polls well.

What does not poll so well is talk of “rights” as Broaddus learned from her previous work with HIV/AIDS and LGBT issues.

“Family, love and commitment” are words everyone can relate to. Talk of “people” not “patients” also makes people realize it could be about them.

C&C came together from several previous organizations working on end of life issues, including the Hemlock Society. They are a compromise of different views, avoiding euthanasia and focusing on the terminally ill.

They also are careful to distinguish between death with dignity and any form of “suicide”. Broaddus explained that suicide is a term generally associated with mental illness.

Celebrity support has come from Olympia Dukakis, “Dear Abby,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu and had been coming from Joan Rivers until her unexpected death.

Personally, you should all have an advance directive. POLST (Physician’s Order for Life Sustaining Treatment) is a form your doctor can complete and is the most effective. The C&C website has all of this information.

Broaddus also asked us to contact our state legislators (Das Williams and Hannah-Beth Jackson locally) to support an Oregon type Death with Dignity Law in California. The time is right!

Robert Bernstein is a local photographer and frequent Noozhawk contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.