The California Senate advanced a measure June 4 that would allow doctors in the state to prescribe a lethal dose of medication to patients who have a prognosis of six months to live or less.
SB 128 now heads to the Assembly, where opponents are hopeful the measure will be defeated.
“We like our chances in the Assembly at this point,” said Andrew Rivas, director of government and community relations for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. “What we heard from the very start was that the bill is inevitable; that it was going to pass overwhelmingly. But, that wasn’t the case here in the Senate.”
The End of Life Option Act passed the Senate in a 23-14 vote after nearly two hours of debate. Two senators shared their personal struggles with thoughts of suicide in the face of illness. Others detailed the stories of family members who lived for years after terminal diagnoses.
Lawmakers also expressed concern with SB 128’s lack of oversight and potential for abuse. The measure is modeled after Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, which has been riddled with troubles since it took effect in 1997.
For instance, the Oregon Health Plan has been implicated several times in denying coverage of expensive treatments but offering coverage of significantly less expensive lethal prescriptions.
“Doctors should kill disease,” said Senator Ted Gaines (R-Roseville) during Thursday’s debate. “They should kill pain. But they should not kill their patients. It doesn’t matter if you call it Death with Dignity or Compassionate Choice or anything else. The name is of no consequence compared to the act.”
Rivas said he was heartened by the Senate’s passionate debate of SB 128, despite the measure’s advancement to the Assembly.
“I think the more people talk about this the more they realize this is not good social policy,” Rivas said. “There are serious problems with the bill that … can’t be resolved.”
He praised Senator Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia) for voting against the bill. Two other Democratic senators did not vote. Rivas said these votes could cultivate more opposition to the bill among Democrats in the Assembly.
The measure passing the Senate on June 4 marks closest California has ever been to legalizing assisted suicide. A similar measure died in 2007 due to opposition by the Catholic Church and disability rights groups.
This year’s push was amplified by the tragic suicide of 29-year-old Brittany Maynard. The California native moved to Oregon to take advantage of the state’s Death with Dignity Act after she was diagnosed with aggressive brain cancer. Maynard’s parents were present at the June 4 debate.
Opponents to SB 128 include the Catholic Church, the Association of Northern California Oncologists and disability rights groups.
“This bill is simply about protecting doctors and HMOs from liability and tells people with disabilities who face a terminal diagnosis, that may well prove inaccurate, that there is no dignity in our lives,” said Marilyn Golden of the Berkeley-based Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund.
“Assisted suicide is dangerous and we are going to bring that message loud and clear to every member of the State Assembly and the Governor.”
It remains unclear whether or not Gov. Jerry Brown would sign the measure should it pass the Assembly.