Se­nate OKs as­sisted sui­cide bill

Cal­i­for­nia law­mak­ers ad­vance End of Life Op­tion Act for ter­mi­nally ill; mea­sure goes to the As­sem­bly.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Pa­trick McGreevy

SACRA­MENTO — Af­ter a de­bate marked by raw and per­sonal tales of loss, the state Se­nate on Thurs­day ad­vanced a pro­posal to al­low ter­mi­nally ill Cal­i­for­ni­ans to end their lives with drugs pre­scribed by physi­cians.

If the mea­sure wins ap­proval by the As­sem­bly and Gov. Jerry Brown, Cal­i­for­nia will join five other states in le­gal­iz­ing as­sisted sui­cide for dy­ing pa­tients. The leg­is­la­tion would ap­ply to re­quests by men­tally com­pe­tent adults with six months or less to live.

The Se­nate pro­posal, ti­tled the End of Life Op­tion Act, is mod­eled af­ter a voter­ap­proved law that took ef­fect in Ore­gon in 1997.

Although de­bated here for decades, the is­sue gained mo­men­tum af­ter Brit­tany May­nard, a 29-year-old Cal­i­for­nian who was ter­mi­nally ill, de­cided to move to Ore­gon last year to end her life rather than suf­fer pain and de­bil­i­ta­tion from an ag­gres­sive brain can­cer.

Be­fore her death, May­nard video­taped an emo­tional ap­peal to Cal­i­for­nia law­mak­ers to give res­i­dents an aid-in-dy­ing op­tion that was not avail­able to her. Brown called May­nard in the weeks be­fore her death to dis­cuss the leg­is­la­tion, ac­cord­ing to his of­fice. “They had a con­ver­sa­tion prior to her pass­ing,” said Evan Westrup, a spokesman for the gover­nor.

May­nard’s hus­band and mother were in the Se­nate cham­ber Thurs­day dur­ing the two-hour de­bate.

The Se­nate mea­sure “is about how we die in Cal­i­for­nia,” said Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis) as she opened the dis­cus­sion. Pas­sage of the bill, au­thored by Wolk and Demo­cratic Sen. Bill Mon­ning of Carmel, would per­mit the ter­mi­nally ill “to vol­un­tar­ily end their lives in peace,” she said.

Wolk talked of the pro­longed, “bru­tal” death of her own mother from can­cer and said the pro­posed law would give Cal­i­for­ni­ans an al­ter­na­tive to such suf­fer­ing.

“Sim­ply hav­ing a pre­scrip­tion is in it­self a source of re­lief, know­ing that if things got re­ally bad that one would have an op­tion to end one’s life with less suf­fer­ing and in peace,” Wolk said.

The mea­sure passed on a largely party line vote of 23 to 14. Its prospects in the As­sem­bly are un­clear, and Brown, who once con­sid­ered be­com­ing a Catholic priest, has not taken a public po­si­tion on the pro­posal.

“This is a gover­nor who will strug­gle with this is­sue, given his back­ground,” Wolk said at a hear­ing in March.

Repub­li­can Sen. John Moor­lach of Irvine ques­tioned the moral­ity of the pro­posal.

“For me, it’s un­con­scionable, and I can’t be a party to it.”

Other sen­a­tors cited re­li­gions that con­sider sui­cide a sin and said el­derly peo­ple might be co­erced into tak­ing their own lives if they felt they were a bur­den on their fam­i­lies.

“Greedy heirs can have an inf lu­ence,” said Sen. Jeff Stone (R-Mur­ri­eta).

Sen. Joel An­der­son (R-San Diego), his voice chok­ing with emo­tion, said he had been tem­po­rar­ily dis­abled in the past and thought of sui­cide to avoid putting pres­sure on his fam­ily.

He also noted that his mother was di­ag­nosed with can­cer. “She was given weeks, but she lived for years.”

Sen. Ted Gaines (R-Rock­lin) asked how physi­cians could eth­i­cally aid oth­ers’ deaths.

“Doc­tors should kill dis­ease. They should kill pain,” he said. “They should not kill their pa­tients.”

The leg­is­la­tion in­cludes safe­guards against abuse, sup­port­ers say. It would re­quire two physi­cians to con­firm a pa­tient’s prog­no­sis of six months or less to live, as well as the pa­tient’s men­tal com­pe­tence to make health­care de­ci­sions.

The pa­tient would have to make two oral re­quests to a physi­cian for help in dy­ing, at least 15 days apart, with wit­nesses to the re­quests. The med­i­ca­tion would have to be self-ad­min­is­tered. In ad­di­tion, the bill would cre­ate felony penal­ties for co­erc­ing a pa­tient into mak­ing a re­quest or for forg­ing a re­quest.

Sup­port­ers ac­knowl­edged that they now have work to do to win over the As­sem­bly and Brown. Sim­i­lar bills failed in the Leg­is­la­ture in 2005 and 2007, with one pass­ing the As­sem­bly be­fore be­ing re­jected by a Se­nate com­mit­tee.

In ad­di­tion, Cal­i­for­nia vot­ers voted down a 1992 pro­posal that would have al­lowed physi­cians to ad­min­is­ter lethal in­jec­tions to their pa­tients.

But Wolk said times have changed.

Since Ore­gon adopted its law in 1997, med­i­cal aid in dy­ing has been au­tho­rized in Wash­ing­ton state, Mon­tana, Ver­mont and New Mex­ico. Public opin­ion polls have shown that vot­ers are more likely to sup­port such a mea­sure now.

Mon­ning, who said the public wants a “com­pas­sion­ate op­tion,” said a bal­lot ini­tia­tive would be likely in Cal­i­for­nia if the Se­nate bill fails this year.

Its sup­port­ers re­ceived a boost last week when the Cal­i­for­nia Med­i­cal Assn. dropped its op­po­si­tion to the mea­sure, SB 128, say­ing physi­cians could de­cide for them­selves whether to as­sist deaths by pre­scrib­ing drugs.

But many doc­tors con­tinue to ob­ject to it, as do many re­li­gious lead­ers and ac­tivists for the dis­abled who fear that group could be put un­der duress to end their lives pre­ma­turely.

The Cal­i­for­nia Catholic Con­fer­ence, the Med­i­cal On­col­ogy Assn. of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and the Cal­i­for­nia Dis­abil­ity Al­liance note that sim­i­lar bills have failed re­cently in Con­necti­cut, Delaware and Colorado.

“This bill is sim­ply about pro­tect­ing doc­tors and HMOs from li­a­bil­ity,” said Mar­i­lyn Golden, a se­nior pol­icy an­a­lyst for the Berke­ley-based Dis­abil­ity Rights Ed­u­ca­tion and De­fense Fund, “and tells peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties who face a ter­mi­nal di­ag­no­sis that may well prove in­ac­cu­rate that there is no dig­nity in our lives.”

Brit­tany May­nard’s dy­ing wish should be re­mem­bered, her hus­band and mother said Thurs­day.

“She used the last por­tion of her life to fight for the rights of other ter­mi­nally ill pa­tients,” said her mother, Deb­bie Ziegler.

“Th­ese are peo­ple who have no hope.”

Af­ter the vote, Ziegler tear­fully hugged law­mak­ers, telling them, “I’m so grate­ful.”

The mea­sure would per­mit the ter­mi­nally ill ‘to vol­un­tar­ily end their lives in peace.’

— Sen. Lois Wolk,

co-au­thor of SB 128

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