Locals respond to Right to Die legislation

Gov. Brown signs law allowing doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs for terminally ill patients
By: Tricia Caspers-Ross of the Placer Herald
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Although, there’s no information available about terminally ill patients in PlacerCounty who choose to end their lives, the Auburn Journal looked into suicide rates for residents ages 60 and older between 2009 and 2013. These statistics are courtesy of Placer County Chief Deputy Coroner, Dennis Watt:

2009: 60 suicides; 17 were age 60 and older

2010: 62 suicides; 17 were age 60 and older

2011: 56 suicides; 13 were age 60 and older

2012: 45 suicides; 13 were age 60 and older

2013: 46 suicides, no age-related data available

Under the new law, physician-assisted end of life will not legally be considered suicide.

This month, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed the End of Life Option Act, also known as the “Death with Dignity Bill.” The bill allows terminally ill Californians to legally end their own lives if they meet certain qualifications.

Dr. Mark Vaughan of Auburn Medical Group wrote to the governor and on Vaughan’s blog in opposition to the law.

“(The law is) changing us from being healers to being executioners,” Vaughan said. “An executioner is the appropriate person to end a life. It’s not a physician; our job is helping to preserve life.”

In an effort to prevent coercion, the law requires that the terminally ill patient be mentally sound, (not depressed or impaired), physically capable of taking the medication themselves. In addition, it requires the approval of two doctors, several written requests as well as two witnesses, one of whom is not a family member. It also prohibits insurance agents from, “providing any information in communications made to an individual about the availability of an aid-in-dying drug.”

The law does protect against coercion, Vaughan said, but he’s more concerned that terminally ill patients will forgo hospice care, which helps the patient die peacefully and offers support to family members.

“With hospice care, death is not … scary (and) painful,” he said. “(Patients) can go out with peace.”

Californian Brittany Maynard, who was 29 and suffering from brain cancer, was at the center of the debate over the bill. Maynard chose to move to Oregon to take advantage of its existing end-of-life laws. In a video statement made just days before Maynard took life-ending drugs she told California lawmakers that the terminally ill should not have to “leave their home and community for peace of mind, to escape suffering and to plan for a gentle death.” Maynard’s mother and husband had campaigned for her rights and were pleased with Gov. Brown’s decision.

 “(It) allows true principles of mercy to guide end-of-life care for the terminally ill in California,” her mother said.

One Auburn resident and licensed social worker, Mary Pat Feeney, said she would prefer hospice care, which she has experienced personally and professionally.

“I would not want to help my parents or my husband take their lives,” Feeney said. “It’s just not what I would choose to do … (hospice care providers) can manage, pain and oxygen, so (the patient) can go out gracefully.”

Feeney provided art therapy for grieving children at Sutter Auburn Faith Hospice, and her parents were in both in hospice care before they died, she said.

“It’s a wonderful organization,” she said. “They meet the needs of the patient and family … (A hospice care provider) is kind of like a midwife but with death.”

Feeney’s father was able to die at home, she said, surrounded by family and holding his great-grandson’s hand, which is the way her father wanted to go.

“It’s a personal choice,” Feeney said.  “Some people have a religious background that (informs) their decision. Some people are fine with it.”

In an interview in “UC Davis Magazine,” the university’s bioethicist, Erich H. Loewy, said, “Helping a patient to die … is not in and of itself a good thing to do … It may, however, under some circumstances, be a less evil thing than the alternatives you're confronted with.”

While Sutter Auburn Faith had no response to the passage of the law, in a media statement the San Francisco branch of Dignity Health said, “Dignity Health will continue to operate in accordance with the Statement of Common Values, which does not include physician aid-in-dying.” The statement went on to say, “in the event patients decide to forego medical treatment to allow the natural process of dying, we will remain fully committed to ensuring their comfort and peace during their final moments.”

Vaughan takes that stance as well and said that his Medical School’s Hippocratic Oath included the words, “to none will I give a deadly drug even if solicited, nor offer council to such an end.”

If a patient wants to end his life, Vaughan said, he wants no part in it.

“I am not the person to come to for that,” he said.  “If they are in that place (of foregoing medical treatment) I will hold their hand through it.”

When the law takes effect at the end of the current session, in at least mid-2016, California will join Oregon, Washington, Vermont and Montana where doctors can already prescribe life-ending drugs.

- AP’s Juliet Williams contributed to this report.