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Thomas Elias: Making it easier to seek death than longer life

Gov. Jerry Brown may not have been aware of what he was doing, but a combination of his signatures and vetoes on bills passed by the Legislature will make it easier for desperately ill persons to seek death in California than to attempt to live longer.

With one of his moves, Brown provided a bit of a revelation of his inner thinking. The window into his psyche came as he approved the state’s new “right to die” law, allowing mentally sound patients in hopeless medical situations to get help in ending their suffering.

Days later, though, he vetoed another bill that would have given terminally ill patients wanting to stay alive the right to try whatever drug they like, be it conventional, controversial or experimental.



Brown wrote in a signing message that he agonized over whether to sign the right to die law, finally being swayed by thoughts of what he might want if he were ever in a seemingly hopeless, painful situation. But there was no such introspection in his veto message on the “right to try” legislation, sponsored by Democratic Assemblyman Ian Calderon of eastern Los Angeles County.

Many terminally ill patients die long before they complete the application process. So the window into Brown’s psyche shows he can conceive of being so ill he’d rather die than fight on…

Yes, Brown said, “Patients with life threatening conditions should be able to try experimental drugs,” but he added that they should go through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s compassionate use program, which allows some people access to investigative drugs.




The trouble is, the FDA’s process often requires many months, multiple lawyers, plenty of money and/or political clout. Many terminally ill patients die long before they complete the application process.

So the window into Brown’s psyche shows he can conceive of being so ill he’d rather die than fight on, but he can’t see himself ever being ill, desperate to live and in a situation where no legally approved drug can help him, but an experimental one might. So much for the governor’s vaunted imagination.

With his veto, Brown closed a window that appeared to open once before for the very ill who want to try something different to solve their problems.

The previous window appeared to open back in 2000, when then-Gov. Gray Davis signed what was hailed as a landmark law and potential life-saver for cancer patients. Health insurance companies were virtually the only dissenters back then and they have since effectively stymied the measure.

This law, passed as SB37 and still on the books, is simple in its concept. Patients who qualify for clinical trials of new cancer drugs should be able to participate in and benefit from those trials without financial concerns. If a clinical trial is not ongoing in California, insurance companies would have to cover routine patient costs associated with participation, wherever in America it was conducted.

This sounded simple in 2000, but insurance companies routinely refused to pay patient expenses in the first few years after it passed.

The experience of the Burzynski Clinic in Houston, TX, where more than 20 FDA-supervised clinical trials of a treatment called antineoplastons have been completed, is typical. That clinic has had many patients from California, but almost none has been funded by insurance carriers, as the law intended. (Full disclosure: Columnist Elias has written a book, The Burzynski Breakthrough, now in its fourth printing, about the antineoplaston treatment and its problems in winning full government approval.)

The upshot is that the window of hope Davis opened for patients almost 15 years ago has never been very wide, mostly because of insurance company resistance.

Now Brown has extinguished the latest spark of hope for many of the same patients who benefit from the 15-year-old SB37, and others.

Brown did not quarrel with anything Calderon said in introducing the latest measure. “Although the FDA approves most compassionate use requests it receives, it often takes doctors and patients…months to navigate the process,” Calderon said. “For terminally ill patients, the waiting period can be a matter of life and death. Patients suffering from a terminal illness should be able to exercise a basic freedom – to preserve their own life.”

Former Roman Catholic seminarian Brown ought to have known that the potentially fatal combination of his latest decisions runs completely counter to the Biblical commandment written in the Book of Deuteronomy (30:19): “…today I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live.”

Thomas D. Elias can be reached at tdelias@aol.com.


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