Spirited Debate

News2MonningFacing opposition from churches, ‘Right-to-Die’ bill gets tabled in Assembly  

By Seven out of 10 Californians believe that the terminally ill should have the right to choose to end their lives with the help of a physician, according to a poll last month. But it appears lawmakers on the Health Committee of the State Assembly do not agree.

The “Aid-in-Dying” bill—called the “physician-assisted suicide” bill by opponents—would have made it legal for physicians to prescribe life-ending drugs to terminally ill patients who have received the prognosis of no more than six months to live from two doctors; who make the request for such a prescription at least twice—a minimum of 15 days apart, and are deemed mentally competent to make decisions about their own health care.

After Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old Anaheim woman diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, had to relocate to Portland, Oregon to legally end her life last fall, advocates for “right to die” legislation—including Maynard’s family—hoped California would follow Oregon’s lead with a bill similar to the “Death with Dignity” act approved by Oregon voters in 1994.

But when proponents of SB 128, the End of Life Option Act, realized they did not have the necessary majority in the 19-member Health Committee to advance the bill to the full Assembly in early July, it was pulled from the committee’s calendar just hours before a scheduled vote. Facing strong opposition from representatives of predominantly Catholic districts in the Los Angeles area, bill authors Sens. Bill Monning (D-Carmel) and Lois Wolk (D-Davis) moved to table the bill for possible consideration next year rather than have the legislation voted down in committee, which would have stopped the bill altogether.  

As the vote was approaching in the Health Committee, hundreds of Catholics from the dioceses of Orange and Fresno were on their way to the capitol to show their opposition to SB 128. According to a release from the California Catholic Conference, “The rally was an overall success as a deluge of people wearing ‘NO on Assisted Suicide’ stickers walked the halls of the Capitol. Their presence was palpable.”

Disappointed by the turn of events, Monning, who represents Santa Cruz, says that the Catholic Church should not be dictating public policy.

“We do not seek to change Church doctrine or intervene in any way with the relationship of a terminally ill patient and their religious beliefs, but similarly we don’t believe the Church should interfere with, block, or prevent options that may be presented in the relationship between the primary care physician and a terminally ill patient,” Monning says. “The key here is voluntary choice.”

It wasn’t just the Catholic Church that opposed the legislation. Latino community organizations, Catholic hospitals, oncologists and disability rights groups banded together to fight SB 128 as Californians Against Assisted Suicide Coalition. They worried, in part, that the bill would disproportionately affect low-income Californians who don’t have access to good health care and don’t want to be a burden on their families. In a letter to the legislature, the coalition wrote, “Physician-assisted suicide is bad for Californians, particularly those with low incomes who may lack adequate access to health care, including mental health services.”

“If assisted suicide is made legal, it quickly becomes just another treatment option, always being the cheapest and, therefore, eventually the treatment of choice,” the letter reads. “This bill undermines the tremendous gains made in hospice and palliative care. Suicide should not be the first option when hospice and palliative care have not been tried.”

Mike Milward, chief executive officer of Hospice of Santa Cruz County, takes exception to the suggestion that hospice care is a preferable alternative to physician-assisted suicide. The vast majority of those terminally ill patients in Oregon who chose to end their lives were on hospice, according to Milward. Those who decide to end their lives, Milward says, “are deeply into their end-of-life process, which hospice helps facilitate. Hospice of Santa Cruz County is “neutral” on the issue of “aid-in-dying” legislation, he says.

Peg Sandeen, executive director of the Death with Dignity National Center in Portland, Oregon says hospice and palliative care are always her first recommendations, but believes there is a critical place for the personal autonomy to terminate end-of-life care. Based on Oregon data, the center has found no evidence for claims of any kind of a “slippery slope”—or that legalizing physician-assisted suicide could be used disproportionately by the poor and uninsured, or worse, for euthanizing the disabled.

“Based on 17 years of experience in Oregon, we just don’t see it happening. These are people who are dying, the overwhelming majority of whom are insured and are done with treatment options, and do not wish to extend their lives,” Sandeen says. The center has received no reports of vulnerable people getting coerced into exercising the option to end their lives, Sandeen says.

Because the bill was pulled from the Health Committee’s calendar without a vote, it remains “alive” in the legislature for another year. Monning says he is not at liberty to discuss any legislative strategy that might be pursued for a re-hearing of the bill.

A ballot measure might be one option for supporters, but Assemblymember Mark Stone (D-Scotts Valley), co-author of SB 128, says the legislative process allows for more procedural flexibility, in terms of future adjustments to the law. A ballot initiative, if approved, would require another ballot vote for any possible amendments. “The time has come for this policy, and the legislative process allows for more appropriate vetting,” says Stone, who will be speaking about these issues on Thursday at the Santa Cruz Police Community room.

Monning, likewise, prefers the legislative process to a ballot measure. Monning says that SB 128 was carefully crafted—allowing Catholic hospitals to opt out of offering the option and making coercion, at any stage of the process, by family or physicians alike, a felony.

“All stakeholders have their fingerprints on this bill,” Monning said. “I’m afraid a ballot initiative may not be so well-crafted, and, if approved by voters, will be practically impossible to amend if amendments become necessary. I don’t think legislators should abdicate their responsibility to represent the widespread support for the Aid-in-Dying bill, and we hope to get this bill to the floor of the Assembly next year .”

Assemblymember Mark Stone (D-Santa Cruz) will discuss the Aid-In-Dying Bill at a free program from 7-8:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 30 at the SCPD Community Room, 155 Center St., Santa Cruz. PHOTO: Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel) was disappointed Catholic groups opposed his right-to-die bill. The bill was tabled before making it out of the Senate Health Committee.


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