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Residents react to 'right to die' legislation which goes into effect this June

By: Tricia Caspers of the Auburn Journal
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Mayor Dr. Bill Kirby once knew a terminally-ill man who took his life with a .22 caliber rifle. The devastation this man’s violent death caused his family is one of many reasons Kirby supports physician-assisted suicide.

The controversial “right to die” law passed by Gov. Jerry Brown last fall goes into effect in California this June.

“I do believe people have a right to … die with dignity,” Kirby said. “Anybody who’s seen the suffering I have seen would agree with me.”

Kirby made it clear that he speaks only as a physician and not as a city official.

While the law, among other requirements, states that the terminally-ill patient must consult with two doctors, and either doctor may request a mental health evaluation, Kirby advocates for all those who wish to end their lives to have a psychological evaluation.

“For 50 bucks anyone can get a prescription for marijuana from doctors who hand them out for money,” he said. “I’d hate to see doctors do the same thing here.”

Still, he said, physician-assisted suicide has been happening for years “on the quiet.”

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told a (terminally-ill) patient … ‘you have to be careful with this drug because it will stop your breathing,’ and the next day they weren’t there.”

Those were patients outside of Auburn, he said.

The new law is creating a formal process and making safe an option that has always been in place, Kirby said.

While many doctors feel they are bound by the Hippocratic Oath, Kirby said his 1975 graduating class at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine refused to take the oath. 

“It doesn’t have a lot of bearing on modern medicine,” he said.

Another local doctor, Dr. Mark Vaughan, encouraged community members to write letters in opposition to the law when it was still on Gov. Brown’s desk.

“It’s really a black eye on my profession that we let this happen,” Vaughan said.

While Vaughan doesn’t pass judgment on those who choose to end their lives, he said, he doesn’t feel it’s the place of a doctor to be a part of that choice.

“My profession has been taken from being about promoting health to being executioners.”

There are other trained professionals, such as pharmacists, who could help the terminally-ill with this decision, he said.

Vaughan advocates for the terminally-ill to turn to hospice for palliative end-of-life care – care that makes the dying comfortable without trying to improve the person’s health – but he believes everyone should be able to make that choice for him or herself.

“I can’t imagine living to point where all the people I love (are gone), and I’m alone in this strange new world,” he said. “I don’t know what that’s like.”

Patients at Kaiser Permanente, which has services in Roseville, are encouraged to discuss end-of-life options with their doctors, according to spokesperson Edwin Garcia.

While physician participation will not be mandatory, he wrote in an email, the option will be available to patients.

“We have been working to make certain we understand how best to implement California’s new End of Life Option Act,” Garcia wrote. “Part of that involves ensuring participating physicians know how to comply with the law’s requirements.”

Assemblywoman Beth Gaines, a Republican who represents Auburn, voted against the right to die legislation as did her husband, Republican Ted Gaines, who represents Auburn in the Senate.

“He was a strong opponent on the floor,” said Ted Gaines’s consultant Matt Cox.

Ted Gaines’s comments to the Senate were reported nationally.

“I’m not going to push the old or the weak out of this world,” he said. “I think that could be the unintended consequence of this legislation.”

Dan Appel, senior Pastor at Seventh-day Adventist Church in Auburn, is also afraid this new law may be a slippery slope.

“How long until we have what we had in (Nazi Germany)?” he asked. “When you didn’t fit in … you could be killed.”

Even with that concern, though, Appel supports the new legislation after watching his mother suffer an agonizing death from colon cancer.

Appel and his wife had recently put down a beloved pet when Appel’s mother was dying.

“I stood beside (my mother’s) bed in the hospital while she was suffering horribly,” he said. “I thought, ‘we are kinder to our dogs than we are to people.’”

He comes from a branch of the church that has a strong belief that God gave humans the ability to choose, he said.

“God did not make robots,” Appel said. “God makes beings with power to choose.”

Appel understands, though, that there will be those who will disagree with him, and he respects that.

“I will defend to my dying breath their right to have a different opinion.”

Reach reporter Tricia Caspers at triciar@goldcountrymedia.com