Gail Etzler can’t shake the image of her mother’s last tortured moments when she died in fits of agonizing pain from breast cancer.
Now, the Santa Rosa woman is facing her own potentially terminal diagnosis and is determined not to go out the same brutal way.
If it comes down to it, the retired notary public will take advantage of a new state law that begins Thursday allowing doctors to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to hasten death. She’ll grab control of her fate and spare her adult son and other loved ones the anguish of witnessing what threatens to be an unpleasant end.
“My mother died a horrible death,” said Etzler, 67, who was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer in January and, without the treatment she receives, was given six months to a year to live. “I remember her pain. I don’t want my son and friends to see me suffer. If there’s an option to help you end your life with dignity, that’s what I’ll do.”
Etzler and others will now have that choice under the state’s End of Life Option Act, which allows physicians to prescribe life-ending medication to mentally competent adults with six months or less to live.
The controversial legislation is modeled on Oregon’s 1997 Death with Dignity law, which resulted in more than 130 doctor-assisted suicides in that state last year. After much debate in Sacramento, it gained political traction last fall after Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old brain cancer victim from California, traveled to Portland in 2014 so she could receive lethal drugs prescribed by a doctor.
Maynard’s family pleaded with Gov. Jerry Brown and lawmakers to pass right-to-die legislation so terminally ill Golden State residents would not have to leave home to get help ending their lives.
Brown, a former Jesuit seminary student who struggled with the decision, signed Assembly Bill 15 after a period of reflection.
“I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain,” he said. “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 doctor-assisted death behind Oregon, Washington, Vermont and Montana.
The idea, which is opposed by the Catholic Church, has divided physicians, ethicists and elected officials.
Some fear it will cause the early death of vulnerable people while diminishing the use of palliative services. Others oppose it on moral or religious grounds, saying it undermines the sanctity of life. In addition, some doctors maintain it’s a violation of their professional duties.
St. Joseph Health, a Catholic health care system that operates Santa Rosa Memorial and Petaluma Valley hospitals, will not allow its physicians to issue death-hastening drugs. The focus instead will be on pain management, hospice care and spiritual support.
“It fills me with great sadness that people feel this is somehow their best option,” said Bishop Robert Vasa, who heads the Catholic Diocese of Santa Rosa. “In a society as great as ours … we can do better.”
But advocates say the law will provide much-needed relief for people suffering incurable diseases that have sapped enjoyment from their lives.