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Assisted death bill derailed in Assembly

On the eve of a dramatic Capitol hearing, the backers of legislation to allow dying people to end their lives with physician-supplied drugs abruptly sidetracked the bill Tuesday at least until next year so they could try and to round up more votes.

The proposal, which earlier passed the Senate, was scheduled to appear its first major policy committee in the Assembly. But just hours before the hearing, which was to include public testimony from dying people in support of the bill, the decision was made to not bring the measure up.

Twenty-nine-year-old Brittany Maynard of San Francisco, who moved to Oregon to take advantage of its right-to-die law, died in November of terminal brain cancer and had advocated in favor of SB 128.

 

The last-ditch maneuver means SB 128 by Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, likely will not be heard before legislators leave in mid-September for their fall recess and could be pushed back into January 2016 – or even further.

The complex bill had faced a deadline next week for legislation to emerge from policy committees. The bill was pulled once before from the 19-member committee, after backers saw the outcome in doubt and feared they couldn’t muster the 10-votes needed for passage.

“We have chosen not to present SB 128, the End of Life Option Act, today in the Assembly Health Committee.  We continue to work with Assembly Members to ensure they are comfortable with the bill,” said a written statement issued jointly by Democratic Sens. Wolk and Bill Monning of Carmel, and Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman, D-Stockton.  “For dying Californians, like Jennifer Glass, who was scheduled to testify today, this issue is urgent.  It is urgent for Christy O’Donnell, for Michael Saum and hundreds of other Californians.” All three were authors of the bill.

The legislation was steeped in drama virtually from its inception. Twenty-nine-year-old Brittany Maynard of San Francisco, who moved to Oregon to take advantage of its right-to-die law, died in November of terminal brain cancer and had advocated in favor of SB 128. Her efforts included a videotape of that family members made in which she urged passage of right-to-die legislation. Shortly before her death, she telephoned Gov. Jerry Brown to urge him to support the bill.

The oncologists – cancer doctors – opposed the bill “because it is contrary to a physician’s oath and primary responsibility to do no harm.”

Withdrawing a bill from a committee hearing, a common maneuver in the Capitol, delays a vote on the measure and gives the authors time to organize support.

Wolk’s plan is patterned after Oregon’s death-with-dignity law, which voters there approved in 1997. Washington and Vermont have similar laws, and court decisions in Montana and New Mexico have “effectively authorized doctors to engage in the practice.” A 2005 Field Poll showed that more than two-thirds of Californians surveyed the notion that “incurably ill patents have the right to ask for and get life-ending medication,” and a similar number “would personally want to have this option if they themselves were terminally ill.”

But there was strong opposition to the bill, led by the Catholic Church, the California Catholic Conference and an array of groups affiliated with the church, including the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Other foes included the National Right to Life Committee, the Medical Oncology Association and groups representing independent living centers for aged adults.  Some Latinos in the Legislature, many of whom are Catholics, expressed reservations about the legislation.

The oncologists – cancer doctors – opposed the bill “because it is contrary to a physician’s oath and primary responsibility to do no harm,” an Assembly consultant wrote in analyzing the bill. The oncologists also believe “the legislation is based upon a common misunderstanding that it is easy to determine when a patient is terminal, noting that despite a physician’s prognosis, many patients outlive a terminal diagnosis,” the analysis noted.

The California Medical Association, however, earlier withdrew its opposition to Wolk’s bill, which contained a lengthy set of controls.

Those include residency rules, a requirement that three separate requests or aid-in-dying drugs – two orally and one in writing – be made directly by the patient to the physician, with at two witnesses present to attest that the patient is acting voluntarily. The physician also is required to examine the patient’s mental condition, call in a mental health expert if necessary, and refer the issue to a second physician for a confirmation of the patient’s condition, with a written record of the entire process.

In Oregon, where about 33,000 residents die each year, an average of 50 people have used the aid-in-dying procedure each year. Based on Oregon’s numbers, if a similar law existed in California, which has a population about seven times that of Oregon, that number would be about 350 people, according to a committee analysis.

 


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