On Thursday, June 9th, the All Things Legal group took some time to reflect on California’s controversial new ‘Right to Die’ law, which was signed by Governor Jerry Brown in October 2015, and went into effect on the day that the show aired. Craig and company approached the topic with a great deal of care, and Craig in particular examined the law from a very personal and intimate perspective.

The Right to Die bill was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown.

The ‘End of Life Option Act,’ commonly referred to as the ‘Right to Die’ bill, was signed into law by California governor Jerry Brown on October 5, 2015, and went into effect on June 9, 2016. Image adapted from photo by Flickr user, licensed via CC-BY-SA 2.0.

The process of dying is not just a legal process. It’s an emotional one.

After some discussion, Craig explained why his view on the law’s value by examining some of the close relationships he has had with his pets, and the unique challenge of deciding when it’s the right time to let them go: “I have rescued six greyhounds over the last 16 years, and I said goodbye to my last great friend Luna only 4 weeks ago. I have a great veterinarian system where they step up and help me with the process, and you’ve got to make some really difficult choices… Your friend has entered the end of their life, and they’re no longer enjoying it as much… the end of life is upon them. And the veterinarian system is very good about helping you through that process.”

There was the briefest moment of hesitation, where it seemed Craig was weighing whether or not he wanted to take another step into his own personal life. He paused, and then continued: “Both of my parents died of cancer. I held my mom’s and my dad’s hand when they took their last breaths… I’ll never forget it… I led them through that journey with my brother’s help, and Tonya helped me with my mother.

“Bottom line, that’s how it’s got to be done. But it’s a very lonely place, because the medical system doesn’t really step in, or hasn’t stepped in at all, about the end of life decisions.”

Ed pointed out that doctors and medical staff have their own obligations: “Well, it’s kind of a Hippocratic Oath thing. ‘Do no harm.’”

Craig again stopped again for a moment, spoke what seemed to be not so much a reply to Ed’s point, but instead part of a deeper, uninterrupted monologue: “Yeah, and so you’re sitting there with your—I don’t know if it’s morphine or whatever, the—drops that you give, it’s a pain medication, and it’s an unnerving process because we’re not familiar as human beings with how to deal with that part of our existence.”

What Craig’s point was here can’t be assumed. But he may well have been thinking about a disconcerting and even frightening line of thought that many people have discovered within themselves as they’ve sat in the dark, next to a loved one who is dying, and in pain: “The doctors have given me these drugs to help reduce their pain. But… I could instead use these drugs to stop their pain altogether. Should I? What’s the right thing to do?”

After this reflection, he moved onto the details of the law itself.

The requirements of California’s ‘Right to Die’ law

Craig: “So, the ‘Right to Die’ law says this: You must be a resident of California. The patient must be mentally competent. (Depression is excluded if it’s based upon your illness, which is fair. Because when you’re dying, you’re not super… happy.) The patient must make two verbal requests, 15 days apart. Got to make sure that they’re really solid about that decision. Followed by a written request witnessed by two people, and one of them’s got to be a non-relative. So, two oral, one written with two witnesses.

“The patient must self-administer whatever drugs are given… the doctor cannot [give] them, they must be self-administered. That just basically protects everybody from legal [concerns]. When you’re talking about criminal liability for perhaps manslaughter, you’re talking about medical negligence, etc. So if it’s self-administered, then at least there’s a barrier between [the doctors and] legal liability from a civil perspective.

“Two doctors must agree about the patient’s medical diagnosis… and mental competency before making the prescription. The law only applies to a patient who’s been diagnosed as having six months or less to live, and the patient must also sign a form at least 48 hours before taking the medication, confirming the choice to die was made under their own free will.

“So that’s one, two, three, four, five, six, seven layers of protection. For somebody to exercise their liberty, which is what our government stands for, right? Life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. And that’s your decision. And we in California have determined that with these safeguards that you are now able [to choose to die]. Some people are in a lot of pain, you know? You’ve got cancer patients, you know, terminal pancreatic cancer, things like that. That’s a lot of pain. And finally, you can now make a decision with dignity, with some help–some professional help–to make that choice if you want to. And that goes into effect today. And that’s kind of a watershed moment, really, celebrating freedom in my mind.”

Counterpoints to the ‘Right to Die’ law

The group took some time to discuss the rather stringent safeguards that the law put into place. Chris responded by saying: “I think it’s totally fair [for the law to have so many restrictions], because the pushback is, ‘You’re going to give poor people the short shrift because the insurance companies don’t want to pay for lots of medical care, and you’re going to force them through this process, get them these medications, and from an economic perspective encourage them to take their lives because it’s going to save you some money from an insurance perspective.’ I get that, and that [concern] does exist.

“Insurance companies provide a super valuable service. Period. End of story. I’ve traveled all over the world, and our system is the best by far from a civil perspective. But, insurance companies want to keep their money. So, I mean, there always is a… there needs to be a safeguard to make sure that you’re not making these decisions lightly. And I think the safeguard is a pretty good one.”

The group consensus sided with Craig’s perspective. Ed summarized the law’s approval process: “It’s a review process before anything goes through. And it doesn’t just occur in 48 hours, etc. You’ve got at least a minimum of two weeks between requests, written requests, non-relatives, doctors, all these individuals that aren’t related that have no benefit to see somebody pass away but are only there… to assist.”

So while the law is a controversial one in many circles, from a legal perspective, it appears to be a well-written and sound law. But regardless of its merits, strengths, or justifications, many questions will likely continue to be raised about it, especially as other states consider whether or not to enact such laws. This process will be an interesting one to watch.