People sit on the beach and watch the sun set as seagulls fly over head in Santa Monica. On Thursday, California's physician-assisted dying law, passed in 2015, will come into effect. RNS Photo/Courtesy of Carlo Allegri, Reuters

California’s End of Life Option law: More peaceful deaths or moral quicksand?

By  Cathy Lynn Grossman, Religion News Service
  • June 7, 2016

Somewhere in California on Thursday, June 9, a gravely ill person may lift a glass and drink a lethal slurry of pulverized prescription pills dissolved in water.

And then die.

That’s the day America’s most populous state implements a law, passed in 2015, making physician-assisted dying accessible to one in six Americans, according to its national backers, Compassion & Choices.

Advocates cheer this “End of Life Option,” the formal name of the law. That’s a less jarring name than the “Death with Dignity” label given to similar laws already in effect in Oregon, Washington, Vermont and Montana.

It’s normal for people to have options, right? They say.

“Normalizing” this process is the term big with supporters. It conjures a sense that this is the last autonomous act of a person who, two doctors must certify, is six months from death’s door. Although the option is a multi-step process that can take a few weeks, it can short-circuit months of intractable pain and suffering.

The real killer, in this view, is the terminal illness or injury. A lethal prescription, which only the patient can administer, merely changes the timing.

That was the view of 29-year-old Brittany Maynard, one of people who inspired the California law.

In 2014, she was a California newlywed who refused to allow an incurable brain tumor to overtake her last days. Instead, Maynard moved to Oregon to have access to that state’s first-in-the-nation right-to-die legislation.

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