Assembly Committee Scheduled To Vote on Assisted-Suicide Measure
A bill (AB 654) sponsored by Assembly members Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys) and Patty Berg (D-Eureka) that would allow some patients diagnosed as having no more than six months to live to end their lives with a self-administered prescription is scheduled to be considered Tuesday by the Assembly Judiciary Committee, the Los Angeles Times reports (Vogel, Los Angeles Times, 4/11).
The bill would allow some terminally ill patients to receive lethal prescriptions after a series of patient-doctor consultations that generally last a minimum of two weeks (California Healthline, 3/29).
The bill is modeled after an Oregon law enacted in 1998 that requires a person seeking a lethal prescription to make three separate requests, two verbal and one in writing. The bill also requires a 15-day waiting period. To receive a prescription, a person must be at least 18 years old, diagnosed with six months or less to live and deemed mentally competent. If a doctor believes the patient is depressed or otherwise mentally impaired, a psychological examination must be conducted (Los Angeles Times, 4/11).
Under AB 654, a person's terminal condition would have to be diagnosed by two physicians, and a patient who has been diagnosed as having depression would not receive a lethal prescription. The bill also "specifies that it doesn't authorize lethal injections, mercy killings or euthanasia," the Sacramento Bee reports (Lawrence, Sacramento Bee, 4/11).
According to the Times, prospects for the bill "are considered dicey." Voters in 1990 rejected a state ballot measure that would have allowed the terminally ill to end their lives with a lethal prescription. In 1992, voters rejected 54% to 46% an initiative that would allow "aid in dying" to people diagnosed with six months or less to live. A similar bill in 1999 passed an Assembly committee but was tabled by its author because it lacked sufficient votes.
A Field Poll in February found that 70% of state residents responded that people who are terminally ill should have access to life-ending prescriptions, a finding that pollsters said has been consistent over the past 25 years (Los Angeles Times, 4/11).
Berg said, "What's important for me is for people to know they have a choice and can make the best end-of-life decisions for themselves and their loved ones" (Sacramento Bee, 4/11).
Barbara Coombs Lee -- co-executive officer for Compassion and Choices, a group sponsoring AB 654 -- said, "Public sentiment supports it absolutely. Public sentiment doesn't translate into political power. That's kind of the sad truth of life in the United States in 2005" (Los Angeles Times, 4/11).
Wayne Johnson, a spokesperson for Californians Against Assisted Suicide, said that evidence of support for the measure is superficial because people often confuse the issue with living wills or artificially extending life. Johnson also suggested that most terminally ill patients who decided to end their lives would do so because they were depressed. He said, "Once people realize we're talking about doctors prescribing lethal prescriptions, that's when opposition mounts" (Sacramento Bee, 4/11). Johnson added, "What we're talking about here is whether or not the government ought to be in the business of sanctioning suicide" (Los Angeles Times, 4/11).
CAAS spokesperson Tim Rosales said, "The opposition doesn't come from the right or the left. It's coming from both and the middle. Everybody has concerns on this bill." CAAS has lobbied every member of the Assembly Judiciary Committee.
According to the Times, some activists for people with disabilities worry that some insurers would "subtly or explicitly encourage suicide" if the bill passes because lethal prescriptions cost $50 or less, while end-of-life medical treatment can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Marilyn Golden, a policy analyst with the Disability Rights, Education and Defense Fund, said, "The last bright line in law we have is the one we have right now, which it is illegal for a doctor or anyone to take an action with the intent to kill. If we transgress that line, there's no more bright line" (Los Angeles Times, 4/11).
Concerns that people in Oregon with low incomes and disabilities would be pressured into decisions to end their lives under the state physician-assisted suicide law "have not been borne out," according to a Bee editorial. The editorial states that "very small numbers" of people with terminal illnesses "hasten their deaths" under the Oregon law.
The editorial concludes, "Lawmakers should act carefully and deliberately on a bill of this nature. But in the end, they should pass AB 654" because it will "provide a means for individuals with incurable, irreversible diseases to seek a measure of dignity with legal safeguards as they come to life's end" (Sacramento Bee, 4/10).