Death with Dignity in California: A History

The success in California was not won overnight; it took 25 years of groundwork and perseverance to make it to October 5, 2015, when Governor Jerry Brown signed ABX2-15, End of Life Option Act, into law.

Prior to the 1990’s, a smattering of events presaged the fight for a Death with Dignity statute in California. The Natural Death Act passed in 1976, protecting physicians from being sued for failing to treat incurable illnesses at the request of the patient. In 1980, Derek Humphry founded the Hemlock Society in Santa Monica, advocating legal change and distributing how-to-die information; the Society’s membership grew to 50,000 within a decade. In 1983, Elizabeth Bouvia, a quadriplegic suffering from cerebral palsy, sued a California hospital to let her die of self-starvation while receiving comfort care; she lost and filed an appeal. In 1986, Americans Against Human Suffering was founded, launching a campaign for what would become the 1992 California Death with Dignity Act. And in 1987 the California State Bar Conference passed a resolution to approve physician aid in dying, becoming the state’s first public body to approve physician-assisted dying.

Two Decades of Failed Attempts

In 1992, Americans for Death with Dignity, formerly Americans Against Human Suffering, placed the California Death with Dignity Act on the state ballot as Proposition 161. Modeled on bills introduced by Oregon Senator Frank Roberts the previous year but allowing for euthanasia by lethal injection, the Proposition fell short of passage by 46 to 54 percent.

We renewed our efforts in California after the passage of Oregon’s law. In 1994 the California Death with Dignity Education Center was founded as a national nonprofit organization working to promote a comprehensive, humane, responsive system of care for terminally ill patients. In the same year the California Bar once again approved aid-in-dying by an 85-percent majority and no active opposition.

Encouraged by the reaffirmation of the Oregon law in 1997, California Assemblymember Dion Aroner in 1999 introduced a Death with Dignity Act based on the Oregon model. It passed the Judiciary and Appropriations Committees, but it ultimately failed to reach a vote in the full Assembly.

California tried again in 2005, when Assemblymembers Lloyd Levine and Patty Berg introduced AB 651, the California Compassionate Choices Act, modeled after Oregon’s law. AB 651 passed from the Senate Judiciary Committee but ultimately failed, as did a couple of later attempts.

End of Life Option Act’s Journey to Passage

It wasn’t until 2014 when a young terminally ill Californian made international news by announcing she wanted the option to die with dignity, but had to leave her home state to do so. Brittany Maynard, together with her family, moved to Oregon where she became the symbol of the Death with Dignity movement.

It took the efforts of Senators Bill Monning (D-Carmel) and Lois Wolk (D-Davis), along with Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton), and a slew of co-sponsors, to carry a bill through a very difficult legislative process. The Death with Dignity Political Fund provided strategic support for the effort.

The two Senators introduced SB 128, End of Life Option Act, on January 21, 2015. On March 25 the Senate Health Committee approved the bill 6-2, with 1 abstention; on April 7 the Judiciary Committee passed the bill 5-2; on May 28 the Appropriations Committee passed the bill 5-2; and on June 4 the full Senate approved the bill 23-15.

California Senate hearing on End of Life Option Act

The hearing on SB 128, End of Life Option Act, in the California Senate Health Committee on March 25, 2015.

After the bill moved to the Assembly, the Catholic Church pressured a handful of Committee on Health members to balk. The bill sponsors pulled SB 128 from the Assembly due to insufficient support and continued working on the bill.

After the summer recess, Assembly Members Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton), Mark Stone (D-Monterey Bay), and several others introduced an amended version of SB 128, in an extraordinary legislative session dedicated to healthcare. The full Assembly approved the bill on September 8 on a 42 to 33 vote; the Senate approved the bill, and 23 to 14 vote on September 11.

Governor Brown signed the bill on October 5. In his signing statement, he wrote:

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 the bill. And I wouldn’t deny the right to others.

—California Governor Jerry Brown

With the Governor’s signature, thirty-nine million Californians joined the residents of Oregon, Washington, and Vermont in having the option, should they be terminally ill with less than 6 months to live, to end their lives in a humane and dignified manner. One in six Americans, or 50 million people, now have the option of Death with Dignity.