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Boardman: California needs a law that makes the final exit a personal choice

George Boardman
John Hart/jhart@theunion.com | The Union

Observations from the center stripe: Early bird edition

WHY BOTHER? Rep. Tom McClintock agreed at the last minute to debate challenger Art Moore in Auburn last week — at 7 a.m. Maybe he thought reporters don’t get up that early … THE DUH headline of last week was in the Sacramento Bee: “McClintock is no paragon of bipartisanship” … GUN OWNERSHIP apparently makes people forgetful. TSA reports it has confiscated almost 1,600 guns at U.S. airports so far this year … SAN FRANCISCO and Kansas City are in the World Series in part because they can catch the ball and throw it accurately. During the regular season, fans talk about everything but fielding … FRIDAY WAS the 25th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake. Scientists say the Bay Area is primed for another big shaker. The Giants are in the World Series, as they were in 1989. It’s October. You don’t suppose …THE SCARY part about the outbreak of Ebola in the U.S. is the bumbling — dare I say incompetence — of health care professionals at the Dallas hospital and the Centers for Disease Control … PARENTS ALWAYS have to be on guard when it comes to the treats their children collect at Halloween. I’m glad I don’t have young children in Colorado, where marijuana-laced goodies have become popular … WHY IS it “partly cloudy,” but never “partly sunny?”…

Mark and I decided to help our little sister die, if that’s what she wanted.

We watched Mary Ann die for three years, inch by painful inch, from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS is a virus, source unknown, that destroys the brain’s ability to communicate with muscles and organs through the central nervous system.

The disease starts killing at the tips of the fingers and toes, and works toward the center. The heart and lungs are the last to go. The brain remains active to the end, so you are fully cognizant of becoming a helpless prisoner in your own body.



We were frustrated by our inability to do anything as her pain increased every day. It was depressing to escort our parents, then pushing 80, to Seattle so they could spend three or four days watching their youngest child wither away.

The state of Washington didn’t allow assisted suicides in 1993. She was divorced and the only other person who could help her was her son, too young to get involved in this. Mark and I decided we would help her if she asked, and take whatever legal heat came later. The subject never came up; Mary Ann decided to fight to the end.




We were scattering her ashes about the time Dr. Jack Kevorkian appeared on the national media’s radar screen. “Dr. Death” became a media sensation (and eventually ended up in prison) for helping several terminally ill people end their lives.

Kevorkian may have been an advocate’s worst nightmare, but he started a national debate about what rights people have when they near the end of their lives. The debate helped bring about passage of Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act, which is in the news now that a terminally ill California woman has moved to the state so she can die on her own terms.

Brittany Maynard, 29, was a newlywed living in San Francisco last year when she was diagnosed with brain cancer. Since it’s not legal in California for terminally ill patients to end their lives with lethal medications prescribed by a doctor, she and her husband relocated to Portland.

“I can’t even tell you the amount of relief it provides me to know that I don’t have to die that way it has been described to me, that my brain tumor would take me on its own,” she says in an online video.

The video is part of a national media campaign launched by the group Compassion & Choices that seeks to expand death-with-dignity laws beyond Oregon and a handful of other states.

Maynard said she expects to die no later than Nov. 1, a few days after her husband’s 30th birthday. “I hope to enjoy however many days I have on this beautiful Earth and spend as much of it outside as I can surrounded by those I love,” Maynard said in the video.

Maynard was forced to move to Oregon because death-with-dignity bills introduced in the past have died in the California Legislature thanks to opposition from organized religion, the medical profession, and conservative activists who warn of dark plots to pressure people — particularly the elderly — to make a hasty exit.

Oregon’s experience with the law is instructive. Since it was enacted in 1997, about 750 people have used the law to die as of last Dec. 31 — less than 50 a year. The median age of the deceased is 71. Only six were younger than 34, like Maynard.

Terminally ill patients who make the request must be of sound mind. The patient must swallow the drug without help; it is illegal in Oregon for a doctor to administer it. This provision was put in the law to mollify physicians who protest that they devote their lives to healing patients, not hastening their death.

Opponents of such measures say there are alternatives for the terminally ill, such as pain-killing drugs and hospice care as the end nears. But spending your final days away from loved ones or in la-la land, as my sister did, because powerful drugs are needed to kill pain is not most people’s idea of dying with dignity.

Given the 24/7/365 nature of media today, Maynard’s story will get plenty of exposure between now and the day she ends her life. The talking head networks, which love divisive social issues, will play it to the hilt, and everybody who wants to tell us how to live our lives will try to make political points for their side.

When the dust clears and the media moves on to the next controversy of the moment, perhaps some legislator will introduce a death with dignity bill in California that will get serious consideration. If we can resolve such serious issues as plastic shopping bags, we should be able to deal with this.

If such a bill surfaces, make an effort to give it support. Think of the bill as an insurance policy. If you’re lucky, you’ll never have to think about using it.

George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays in The Union.


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