Skip to content

Assembly committee endorses physician-assisted suicide bill

SACRAMENTO – After two hours of sometimes wrenching, intimate testimony, a legislative committee on Tuesday narrowly endorsed making California the second state in the nation where doctors could prescribe medication to hasten the deaths of terminally ill adults.

In a hearing room where all 120 seats were filled, wheelchairs crowded the aisles and dozens of people lined the walls, the Assembly Judiciary Committee voted 5-3, with one member absent, to endorse AB 654, which would permit physician-assisted suicide for people with fewer than six months to live. The bill next moves next to the Assembly’s appropriations committee before a floor vote expected by May.

Oregon is currently the only state that allows physician-assisted death. The Bush Administration has challenged Oregon’s law to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hear arguments this fall.

Framing the measure as a preservation of individual privacy, autonomy and dignity, the bill’s authors, Assemblymembers Patty Berg and Lloyd Levine were able to overcome opponents’ concerns that people could be coerced into committing suicide or make the decision in haste. They accepted a number of amendments to assuage lawmakers’ concerns and toughen safeguards.

The bill “is about the freedom of the individual to make choices — the freedom for your choices to be different from my choices,” said Berg, D-Santa Rosa. “The question before you today is not whether you approve of a terminally ill patient hastening his or her death. It is about whether you will uphold our civil right of privacy.”

Dozens of doctors, nurses, disabled activists, lawyers, religious leaders and everyday people addressed the committee.

Opponents — some wearing stickers reading “Californians Against Assisted Suicide” — invoked Nazi Germany, recently deceased Florida resident Terri Schaivo and patients who had emerged from comas to live full lives. Many supporters — clad in yellow T-shirts reading “Compassion and Choices” — told stories of loved ones who endured unimaginable suffering and begged for help that was not legally available before dying.

The American Civil Liberties Union, former Oregon Gov. Barbara Roberts and the National Organization for Women spoke in favor.

Disability groups and the powerful California Medical Association were opposed to the bill (although individual members spoke in favor). Opponents vowed to step up their lobbying efforts to defeat the bill.

A doctor’s responsibility is “to at all times act in the best interests of the patient,” said Dr. Michael J. Sexton, CMA’s president. “AB 654 puts physicians in a position where they’re not acting in the patient’s best interests.”

Ultimately, Democratic Assemblymembers Noreen Evans, Dave Jones, John Laird, Sally Lieber and Levine voted yes. Democrat Cindy Montañez, who appeared angst-ridden, said she agreed with easing patients’ suffering but could not abide by the thought that the government would “be a party to assisted suicide.”

Two of the Committee’s Republicans — Ray Haynes and Tim Leslie — voted no. Republican Assemblyman Tom Harman left the dais as the voting began. He was expected to cast a vote later.

According to a Field Poll last month, 70 percent of Californians favor allowing physician-assisted suicide and 68 percent would want the option available to them if they had fewer than six months to live.

Californians of different religions and both major political parties supported the idea — although more Democrats than Republicans endorsed it. Since Oregon’s law took effect, 208 people have hastened their deaths with fatal doses of barbiturates, according to the most recent report from the state’s health department. In 2004, some 37 terminally people ingested drugs and died within five minutes to 31 hours.

AB 654 is modeled on Oregon’s law. It would be open to mentally competent California adults diagnosed with fewer than six months to live. To receive fatal prescriptions, they would have to orally ask their doctor twice, more than two weeks apart. They would also have to make the request in writing. And two doctors would have to confirm the patient’s prognosis and mental competency.

Doctors with moral or other qualms would not be required to write such prescriptions. And the law would not allow anyone other than the patient to make the decision or administer the medication. An amendment added Tuesday would not require Catholic or religious based hospitals to permit hastened deaths.

Two previous efforts to legalize doctor-assisted suicide in California, a 1992 initiative and a 1999 bill, both failed. The 1999 bill also passed the Judiciary Committee and the Appropriations Committee before the author withdrew it for lack of support.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has not taken a stance on current bill.

To read the most recent health department report about Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act, look here .

From: San Jose Mercury News, CA, US
By Kate Folmar
Mercury News Sacramento Bureau