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California legalizes 'right to die' for terminal patients

Posted: 7:27 AM, Jun 10, 2016
Updated: 2016-06-10 12:47:25Z

California is now the fifth state in the nation that allows cancer patients and others with a terminal disease to choose to end their own life.

Elizabeth Wallner has terminal colon cancer. The Sacramento woman has been battling the disease for five years, and lobbied for the bill while the California Legislature was considering it last year.

“Once there are no more medical treatments, once I've eaten all the kale, done all the acupuncture, done all the chemo and there's nothing else I can do, and it's the end — all that's going to happen is my family is going to be left behind in a worse state than they would be if I died peacefully and kindly at home,” Wallner said.

Thursday, California’s End of Life bill, also known as the “right to die” law goes into effect.

It allows anyone in California with fewer than six months to live to choose to end their own life using certain drugs prescribed by a willing doctor and pharmacist.

Matt Whitaker is the California state director of Compassion and Choices, the group that has advocated for the law in California and the four other states that have passed similar bills in the past.

“For many folks, they frankly face symptoms that would be unbearable or are uncontrollable in their last weeks to days of life,” he said. “For them this option represents some control.”

California’s law requires two doctors agree the patient has fewer than six months to live. The patient has to make two requests, in writing, 15 days apart, and give a final affirmation 48 hours before taking the drugs that they indeed want to go through with ending their own life.

“It gives me peace,” Wallner said. “But I think it gives my son peace and my family, particularly my siblings, because they would be the ones who would be caring for me in the last weeks and months of my life.”

Religious groups opposed the bill, saying it goes against God’s will and that it may normalize suicide.

California’s law allows doctors and pharmacists to refuse to prescribe or fill the medication if it goes against their personal views.

Some religious hospital groups have already said they will not participate.

“I understand the people who say there is beauty in struggle,” Wallner said. “I do. But as I said, I've been struggling for five years. I've made my peace. I've had my conversations. I've grown as much as I can grow as of today.”

Whitaker says he expects around 1,500 terminal patients to medically end their lives in California in the first year.

Oregon, Washington, Montana and Vermont already have “right to die” laws.

Nineteen other states were set to consider similar legislation sometime this year.