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Fighting for Death with Dignity

Berkeley Social Welfare Students Emily Higgs (MSW ’16) and Marta Galan (MSW/MPP ’17) Advocate for the End of Life Option Act in California

In Professor Jill Duerr Berrick’s Social Welfare Policy: Children and Families course, MSW students learn about local- and state-level policymaking processes, the importance of coalition-building and targeted advocacy as well as how to create policy messages and media campaigns to influence politicians and the public. To develop these skills, students are asked to select a bill under consideration and work on a variety of projects in support of the proposed legislation.

Emily Higgs and Marta Galan, two current Berkeley Social Welfare students who enrolled in Dr. Berrick’s class last spring, knew immediately where they wanted to focus their attention. California’s Senate Bill 128: The End of Life Option Act, authored by Senators Lois Wolk, D-Davis, and Bill Monning, D-Monterey, seeks to allow terminally ill patients in the state the right “to obtain self-administered life-ending medication.” Higgs and Galan’s advocacy efforts on behalf of the bill have gone far beyond the classroom assignment, with a real-world reach helping to raise awareness and affect public perception about the controversial legislation.

In addition to creating a Facebook presence through the group Californians for the End of Life Option Act, Higgs and Galan are working in conjunction with Compassion and Choices, an advocacy group dedicated to legalizing end-of-life options. The nonprofit gained widespread media attention last year in its close support of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old UC Berkeley alumna who moved from her native California to Oregon to avail herself of the northwest state’s landmark Death with Dignity Act (DWDA). Maynard’s decision to take a physicianprescribed lethal dose of medication to end the pain caused by her terminal brain cancer has both galvanized the country and spurred the debate of enacting death with dignity laws in states where they currently do not exist.

The bill was introduced in California in February 2015, just months after Maynard passed away. It was also at that time that Higgs and Galan were considering legislation for their policy course.

“I decided to work on this bill because it has a lot of personal resonance,” explains Higgs. “Death with Dignity laws and the Right-to-Die Movement have been meaningful to me in the past few years. My mother passed away from terminal brain cancer and absolutely would have benefitted from more choice at the end of her life.”

“When Emily asked me if I would be interested in working with her, I was 100 percent in,” adds Galan. “We saw that the bill was being supported by a lot of different legislators and that it wasn’t going away anytime soon.”

Their Facebook group page features news about the bill and its progression through the state senate and assembly as well as photos of individuals holding up “I support Death with Dignity” posters showcasing the variety of individuals in favor of the legislation. The posters also include the reasons why each individual supports the legislation, such as “true power is about having power over your decisions about your life and your death” and “I don’t want to suffer like my mother.” 

Higgs says that the idea behind the posters is “to humanize and destigmatize the issue” and to demonstrate the diversity of its supporters. “Because we’re young and in school, our network is primarily younger people, which is not the demographic that is most associated with the issue,” she says. “It seemed really powerful to get those voices and faces out to show a different side.”

Beyond their advocacy efforts on social media, Galan and Higgs received invitations to provide testimony in Sacramento as the bill moved throughout the legislature as well as to participate in action teams in the Bay Area. Higgs has also continued to meet with representatives from Compassion and Choices, including chief external affairs officer Nick Simmonds and Jacie Rowe, the Northern California campaign organizer.

Higgs’ words and voice were also featured on a moving KQED Perspective titled, “Life and Death With Dignity.” In the public-radio commentary she vocalizes her support for the End of Life Option Act, describing the bill’s safeguards designed to protect the most vulnerable and marginalized from potential abuses, as well as sharing her family’s personal connection to the legislation. 

In the Perspective – which was heard and supported by Maynard’s Bay Area-based widower, Dan Diaz, and brotherin-law, Adrian Diaz – Higgs notes, “My mother passed away in 2013. As brain cancer robbed her of mobility, intellect and personality, she asked to be released from her suffering. But the law did not support my mother’s right to selfdetermination, and the disease took her life on its own terms. No one should be forced to suffer through their last days, and the End of Life Option Act is an opportunity, not a risk.” 

Higgs and Galan also assembled an information packet featuring an at-a-glance snapshot of the bill that includes the guidelines related to medical participation and pertinent data points from Oregon, where the state’s DWDA was passed in 1997 (eg, nearly 98 percent of the patients who took the prescribed medication were able to pass away in their own homes).

Both Galan and Higgs’ dedication to shedding light on the End of Life Option Act and raising public awareness about the need and desire for medical aid-in-dying options in California are indicative of the students’ advocacy-focused educational and professional goals.

Galan earned her undergraduate degree in public health and is currently enrolled in a concurrent masters program in public policy and social welfare, with an emphasis on management and planning. Her aim is to work in humanservice policy, while keeping close to the communities most directly affected by those policy decisions. “If one day I’m going to be a policymaker or an informant to policymakers, I want to understand the populations – and the people who work with those populations – that human-service policy will be impacting,” she says.

Higgs, who notes she has “always gravitated to macro-level practice,” specialized in peace and conflict studies as an undergraduate. She ended up pursuing an MSW degree in the management and planning concentration because, as she explains, she felt limited by what she saw in other graduate programs. “Social work felt like the most expansive degree program that could open doors, instead of closing them, and allow me to explore all my different interests without having to narrowly focus on any one issue or methodology.” Higgs also cites the profession’s commitment to social justice, as she plans to work within the “advocacy side of systems change.”

As for the fate of SB-128, the bill ended up sailing through the senate in early summer before stalling in the Assembly Health Committee in July. On the day the bill was shelved, Higgs was in Sacramento to provide testimony at the Health Committee hearing with other Compassion and Choices advocates. 

The End of Life Option Act, however, was reintroudced  via a special session in the California legislature, which officially approved the bill in September. Passed in the state senate by a 23-to-14 vote, the bill now is before Governor Jerry Brown. Should the governor sign the bill, California would become the fifth state in the country, alongside Oregon, Washington, Montana and Vermont, to allow physcians to prescribe life-ending medication to certain patients.

“California is one of 28 states that are or will be considering Death with Dignity legislation this year alone,” observes Higgs. “The tide is clearly turning in favor of this important issue.”

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NOTE: On October 5, Governor Jerry Brown signed the amended End of Life Option Act, AB X2-15, officially making California the fifth state to approve Death with Dignity legislation.