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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.


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Pre-1990

Prior to the 1990’s, a smattering of events presages the fight for a death with dignity statute in California.

1976

The Natural Death Act passes, protecting physicians from being sued for failing to treat incurable illnesses at the request of the patient.

1980

Derek Humphry establishes the Hemlock Society in Santa Monica, advocating legal change and distributing how-to-die information; the Society’s membership grows to 50,000 within a decade.

1983

Elizabeth Bouvia, a quadriplegic suffering from cerebral palsy, sues a California hospital to let her die of self-starvation while receiving comfort care; she loses and files an appeal. \

1986

Americans Against Human Suffering is founded, launching a campaign for what would become the 1992 California Death with Dignity Act.

1987

California State Bar Conference passes a resolution to approve physician aid in dying, becoming the state’s first public body to approve physician-assisted dying.


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Two Decades of Attempts

1992

Americans for Death with Dignity, formerly Americans Against Human Suffering, place 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 falls short of passage by 46 to 54 percent.

1994

Advocates, including our predecessors, renew efforts in California after the passage of Oregon’s law.

California Death with Dignity Education Center is 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.

1997

Encouraged by the reaffirmation of the Oregon law in 1997, California Assemblymember Dion Aroner introduces a death with dignity bill based on the Oregon model. It passes the Judiciary and Appropriations Committees, but it ultimately fails to reach a vote in the full Assembly.

2005

Assemblymembers Lloyd Levine and Patty Berg introduce AB 651, the California Compassionate Choices Act, modeled after Oregon’s law. AB 651 passes from the Senate Judiciary Committee but ultimately fails, as do a couple of later attempts.

2014

A young terminally ill Californian makes international news by announcing she wants the option to die with dignity, but has to leave her home state to do so. Brittany Maynard, together with her family, moves to Oregon where she becomes the symbol of the death with dignity movement.


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End of Life Option Act’s Journey to Passage

2015

Partly in response to Maynard’s well-publicized story, California State Senators Bill Monning (D-Carmel) and Lois Wolk (D-Davis), along with Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton), and a slew of co-sponsors, carry a bill through a very difficult legislative process.

The Death with Dignity Political Fund provides strategic support for the effort.

  • January 21 – The two Senators introduce SB 128, End of Life Option Act.

  • March 25 – Senate Health Committee approves the bill 6 to 2, with 1 abstention.
  • April 7 – Senate Judiciary Committee passes the bill 5 to 2.
  • May 28 – Senate Appropriations Committee passes the bill 5 to 2.
  • June 4 – California State Senate approves the bill 23 to 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.

  • Summer – After the bill moves to the Assembly, the Catholic Church pressures a handful of Committee on Health members to balk. The bill sponsors pull SB 128 from the Assembly due to insufficient support and continue working on the bill.
  • August 17 – Assembly Members Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton), Mark Stone (D-Monterey Bay), and several others introduce an amended version of SB 128, in an extraordinary legislative session dedicated to healthcare.
  • September 8 – California State Assembly approves ABX2-15 on a 42 to 33 vote.
  • September 11 – California State Senate approves the bill 23 to 14.

George Eighmey, our Board President (center) with California State Senators Lois Wolk and Bill Monning, sponsors of the End of Life Option Act, in 2015.

  • October 5 – California Governor Brown signs the End of Life Option Act into law. 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.

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 in ABX2-15 signing statement

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2016

  • February 10 – We propose SB 1002, the End of Life Option Telephone Number, which would create a toll-free telephone line, operated by the California Department of Public Health, providing unbiased information to Californians about their rights and responsibilities under the new End of Life Option Act.
  • March 30 – SB 1002 passes out of the Senate Committee on Health 5 to 2, but then gets voted down in the Appropriations Committee. Instead, the California Department of Public Health features all pertinent information on its website.

End of Life Option Act in Effect and Under Attack

  • June 9, 2016 – California End of Life Option Act goes into effect. The law is challenged in courts by a group of anti-choice physicians seeking to halt the Act’s implementation. Riverside County Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Ottolia denies their request for an injunction to stop the new law from taking effect but allows a portion of the suit to proceed, eventually setting a trial for September 28, 2018.

2017

  • February 7 – California Assembly Member Reginald Byron Jones-Sawyer, Sr. (D-Los Angeles) files AB 282, updating the state’s Penal Code to say that actions undertaken under the End of Life Option Act are exempted from prosecution for aiding suicide.

2018

  • January 9 – AB 282 passes unanimously in the Assembly Committee on Public Safety.
  • January 18 – AB 282 passes in the full Assembly on a 45 to 17 vote.
  • February 16 – California State Senator Morrell (R) files SB 1336, which would require the patient inform their physician of reasons, selected from a list of four, for requesting the medications, and the bill would also make changes to the annual report.
  • April 11 – SB 1336 is defeated in committee.
  • May 15 – AB 282 moves to the California State Senate, where passes in the Public Safety Committee 5 to 2; the bill remains active. And Judge Ottolia grants a motion of the law’s opponents, saying the California State Legislature violated the state constitution by passing the law during a special session limited to healthcare.
  • May 21 – California Attorney General Xavier Becerra appeals and requests a stay of the May 15 ruling.
  • May 23 – California 4th District Court of Appeal denies the AG’s request to stay the May 15 ruling.
  • May 25 – Riverside County Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Ottolia overturns the End of Life Option Act in a formal, written ruling confirming the law is void and unconstitutional.
  • June 15 – California 4th Court of Appeal grants the AG’s motion to stay the Riverside County Superior Court ruling that overturned the End of Life Option Act, and vacates all scheduled lower court trials. The statute is again the law in the state of California, pending any future rulings to the contrary.
  • August 6 – AB 282 passes in the full Senate 25 to 9, with amendments.
  • September 5 – Governor Brown signs AB 282 into law.

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Featured image by Brian Wilkins.