Physician-assisted suicide resurrected in Assembly

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients could become a reality in California if lawmakers approve Assembly Bill 374, which was introduced Feb. 15.

A committee hearing on the measure, dubbed the California Compassionate Choices Act, could come as early as March 18.

The bill replicates one proposed last year, but which failed to make it out of committee. Other legislative attempts were also made in 1999 and 2005. The legislatures in Arizona, Hawaii and Vermont are also pressing for physician-assisted suicide laws. Oregon is the only state in the nation with such a law in effect.

Modeled after the Oregon law, California doctors would be allowed to dispense end-of-life drugs for patients who presumably had six months or less to live.

The bill's authors Assemblywoman Patty Berg, D-Eureka, and Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, D-Van Nuys, are confident they have enough votes this session to pass the measure through committee to the assembly floor.

The pair received early support from influential lawmaker Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, who announced at a Feb. 15 news conference he would join the effort by signing on as the bill's co-author.

"There's no question that this topic stirs a lot emotion and a lot of debate," Nunez was quoted by the Associated Press. "I think when you pare it down to its essence, however, this is about how people are going to live their last days of their life."

Nuñez, a Roman Catholic, acknowledged that his stand is at odds not only with his church, but also his mother.

"But I think it's the right thing to do," he said.

Other co-authors include Mike Feuer, D-West Hollywood; Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles; Jim Beall Jr., D-San Jose; Julia Brownley, D-Woodland Hills; Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles, Mark DeSaulnier, D-Martinez; Mervyn Dymally, D-Compton; Mike Eng, D-El Monte; Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa; Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael; Dave Jones, D-Sacramento; Betty Karnette, D-Long Beach; John Laird, D-Santa Cruz; Mark Leno, D-San Francisco; Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco; Lori Saldaña, D-San Diego and Lois Wolk, D-Vacaville.

Although polling numbers in California indicate majority support for physician-assisted suicide, its opponents believe the measure can be stymied. They point to 1992 when the Hemlock Society supported Proposition 161, which registered as high as 74 percent in the pre-election polls, but failed at the ballot box by 8 percentage points.

"We believe doctors should be focused on saving lives, not killing patients," Assemblyman Joel Anderson, R-La Mesa, the ranking Republican on the Aging and Long-Term Care Committee, told the Associated Press.


Attack on the system?
Officials with Californians Against Assisted Suicide, which campaigned hard to stop last year's bill, were quick to criticize the renewed effort. The group consists of a coalition of disability rights organizations, independent living centers, organizations representing the poor and uninsured, medical professionals, and civil rights organizations.

"The people of California are faced with a broken health care system that too many times is seen as caring more for its bottom line than caring for its sick, uninsured, disabled and dying," Marilyn Golden, a policy analyst with the Disability Rights, Education and Defense Fund, said in a news release. "Why do these legislators continue to re-hash this failed issue in the face of widespread opposition from disability rights organizations, doctors, medical groups, and civil rights and social justice groups?"

In addition to civil rights concerns, opponents of the measure argue the plan's main focus—an the reason for previous failures—is to fix a failed healthcare network.

"Ultimately when legislators realized this bill was not about the right to die, but was in fact about undermining our healthcare system through disastrous systemic change, support wanes as it always has," Golden said.

For more information, visit ca-aas.com. To monitor the bill's progress visit californiafamily.org.