By Patrick McGreevy
Caught between conflicting moral arguments, California Gov. Jerry Brown, a former Jesuit seminary student, on Monday signed a measure allowing physicians in the nation's most populous state to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients who want to hasten their deaths.
Approving the bill, whose opponents included the Catholic Church, appeared to be a gut-wrenching decision for the 77-year-old governor, who as a young man studied to enter the priesthood.
"In the end, I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death," Brown added. "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 this bill. And I wouldn't deny that right to others."
California becomes the fifth state to allow so-called assisted suicide, following Oregon, Washington, Montana and Vermont.
The new law is modeled after Oregon's. It permits physicians to provide lethal prescriptions to mentally competent adults who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness and face the expectation that they will die within six months.
The law will take effect 90 days after the Legislature adjourns its special session on health care, which may not be until next year. The earliest likely adjournment would be in January.
The governor's action caps months of emotional and contentious debate over the End of Life Option Act, which divided physicians, ethicists, religious leaders and the Democratic majority in the Legislature.
"Abx2 15 is not an ordinary bill because it deals with life and death," Brown wrote in his signing message. "The crux of the matter is whether the state of California should continue to make it a crime for a dying person to end his life, no matter how great his pain suffering."
Brown said he carefully read input from two of his own doctors, a Catholic bishop and advocates for the disabled, as well as pleas from the family of Brittany Maynard, a cancer victim who took her own life. He said he even has received input from retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
"I have considered the theological and religious perspectives that any deliberate shortening of one's life is sinful," he wrote.
Most Republican lawmakers opposed the bill on moral grounds. Democrats who voted against it cited religious views or experiences in which family members given months to live by doctors had lived for years.
Californians have been debating such end-of-life legislation for more than two decades.
State voters in 1992 rejected a broader proposal that would have allowed physicians to administer lethal injections to the terminally sick. Bills offering patients the right to obtain deadly drug doses failed in the Legislature in 2005, 2006 and 2007.
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