It’s noteworthy, but not surprising, that Dianne Feinstein’s big-deal endorsement of California’s right-to-die legislation comes only a few months after the arduous death of her close and lifelong friend, Merla Zellerbach.
Feinstein’s support for the bill, scheduled for its first committee hearing next week, came in a letter released by its sponsors on Tuesday, a significant development widely ignored by the MSM press corps, except for the Media News Group’s ever-alert Josh Richman.
“The right to die with dignity is an option that should be available for every chronically suffering terminally ill consenting adult in California,” DiFi wrote. “I share your concern that terminally ill California residents currently do not have the option to obtain end-of-life medication if their suffering becomes unbearable.”
Hailed correctly by chief sponsor Sen. Lois Wolk, a Davis Democrat, as a “big boost” for the awkwardly titled “End of Life Option Act”, Feinstein’s public imprimatur was first signaled in January, when she spoke at Temple Emanu-El services for Zellerbach, a prominent S.F. writer, civic leader and philanthropist .
“Those of us that make laws in this country have to give a lot of thought to how people die,” she said then.
Exhibit A: In moving detail, Chronicle columnist Leah Garchik described the decline and death from pancreatic cancer of the 84-year old Zellerbach, a must-read piece published in January. It should serve as Exhibit A for the case in favor of a California “death with dignity” law, as it is known in Oregon.
Zellerbach was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer last summer. After mulling the decision, the advanced stage of her disease, her age and her awful reaction to pre-chemotherapy medication, together convinced her not to endure further treatment. She was sure of her choice:
“It’s not suicide,” she said by phone. “For one thing, suicide patients have a choice. They can go on living.” In a situation like hers, however, patients “do not have a choice. They’re going to die. … And you’re not doing it to yourself. God or whoever she is has made the choice that you can’t go on living.”
Over the next months, Zellerbach spoke and met frequently with Garchik about what was happening to her as the disease advanced; their agreement was that Leah would not publish anything until Merla had died.
Years before her cancer, Zellerbach became active in a non-profit group called Compassion and Choices, which seeks to help dying people manage their suffering. The organization wants to add California to the small list of states – Oregon, Montana, New Mexico, Vermont and Washington – that have death-with-dignity statutes.
Tended to by doctors, friends, family, caregivers, hospice workers and a team from Compassion and Choices, Merla knew no one could stop the cancer that would kill her. But she thought she could be in control. She was wrong.
Zellerbach’s end-of-life reflections and commentary provide a vivid picture of the kinds of circumstance that should allow the dying the freedom to lift their suffering:
“I have lost my faith in that it would be some kind of fairy-tale thing, that you pop in a pill and it is done,” she said 11 days before the end, which came Dec. 26. “Doctors have it hammered into their heads to do no harm. But it’s pretty harmful to let people suffer.”
At one point, she recalled the words of her rabbi father about his own laborious, punishing death:
In 1975, Merla’s father, a rabbi, had died of pancreatic cancer, in great pain. “I asked him if he still believed in God. He replied, ‘All I ever asked for from God was a merciful death, and I don’t understand why I’m not getting it.’”
What’s in the bill: Oregon’s death-with-dignity law has been in effect for 17 years, with “no reported cases of abuse,” according to sponsors of the California bill; 155 people with end of life diagnoses used its self-empowering authority last year.
Wolk’s bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel and Assembly member Susan Talamantes Eggman, D-Stockton, will be debated in the Legislature as at least 15 other states, and the District of Columbia, consider similar legislation. The national death with dignity movement has been spurred by the case of Brittany Maynard, who captured national attention last year when she moved from the Bay Area to Oregon to die, after being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor.
The End of Life Options Act… would give patients with terminal illnesses the right to seek life-ending medication from their doctor. Specifically, the bill would require that:
The medication is self-administered;
The patient is mentally competent;
Two physicians confirm the prognosis that the patient has six months or less to live;
The patient’s physician discusses alternatives and additional treatment option;
The patient submits a written request and two oral requests made at least 15 days apart;
Two witnesses attest to the request.
In addition, the bill would require an interpreter for non-English speakers.
Bottom line: George Skelton recently broke down the legislative politics of the measure, calling it “potentially the most emotional issue” of the session, and reporting that its chances of passing the senate were more favorable than in the Assembly, “where many Latinos represent heavily Catholic constituencies and are leery because of church opposition.”
We’re with George on the bottom line:
Many terminally ill patients fear dying slowly in pain. They’d like to cut short the agony. But some with disabilities worry about being pressured into suicide. Still others believe their god insists they die naturally even if suffering.
Me, I’d like to make my own decision, thank you. No government or religion telling me what I can or cannot do with my own body.
The Senate Health Committee will take up SB128 on Wednesday.
The Dianne and Merla show: As loyal readers know, Feinstein’s personal experiences often shape her stances on policy matters, from her views on gun control to the shift she made years ago on the death penalty. Whether or not her 50-year friendship with Zellerbach was determinative in her decision to take a high-profile position on the aid-in-dying bill, there is no denying the closeness of their friendship.
Zellerbach and her late husband were big supporters, personally, politically and financially, starting with Feinstein’s first campaign, when she won as a big long shot for supervisor.
The couple was among a small group Feinstein assembled to make a covert visit to a downtown porno theater, following which she launched a high-profile campaign against the smut industry that made her a top-rank celebrity politician in San Francisco. Zellerbach, then a Chronicle columnist herself, backed the play with a piece that described Feinstein’s undercover visit:
What we found was total degradation of the human spirit, a terrifying look into the darkest recesses of the sick mind.
Two years later, Feinstein launched a first, ill-fated, campaign for mayor; it is perhaps most notable because during it, she became one of the first politicians anywhere to actively court the gay community. During that race, DiFi had a scheduling conflict, and so asked Zellerbach and her husband, Fred Goerner, to stand in for her at an important event:
At one point Merla Zellerbach and Fred Goerner were dispatched to represent her at a transvestite ball, where an annual “Empress of San Francisco” contest was held. The two were paraded down a runway and received an enthusiastic response (‘”Fred got asked to dance,” his wife recalled) in recognition of the respect that Feinstein was showing the gay community.”
Update 3-25-15: The right-to-die bill passed its first test, after sometimes emotional testimony, when the state Senate Health Committee approved it 6-to-2. It now goes to the senate Judiciary Committee.