Calif. lawmakers introduce assisted suicide bill

This undated photo shows Brittany Maynard, the terminally ill Californian who moved to Oregon in 2014 to take advantage of that state's right-to-die law.
This undated photo shows Brittany Maynard, the terminally ill Californian who moved to Oregon in 2014 to take advantage of that state's right-to-die law.
Maynard Family/AP

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California legislators have introduced a right-to-die bill, hoping to make California the sixth state in the U.S. to give the terminally ill the option of ending their life.

The bill, sponsored by State Senators Bill Monning (D-Carmel) and Lois Wolk (D-Davis) and Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton), would allow terminally ill patients to receive life-ending drugs if they meet certain conditions.

"This would add one more option as a last resort," said Wolk. "It’s about personal freedom and guarantees terminally ill Californians the right to exercise this option if they believe it’s right for them. The way we spend the end of our lives is a deeply personal decision."

Monning said patients would be required to have two physicians confirm their prognosis – six months or less to live  - and find them mentally competent. Participation by physicians would be voluntary.

The lawmakers  were joined by the family of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old who made national headlines when she moved to Oregon from California last year so she could end her life after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. 

The last time the California legislature considered a right-to-die bill was in 2007. Since then, four more states have adopted laws similar to Oregon’s.

The bill's proponents pointed to a 2006 Field poll which found 70 percent of Californians said the terminally ill should have the right to end their life with medication. 

A more recent national poll by Gallup, conducted in May 2013, found 70 percent of Americans supporting the idea of letting doctors end a terminally ill patient's life "by some painless means." Only 51 percent supported the process when it was described as doctors helping someone "commit suicide." 

Opponents of the bill say it does not provide enough safeguards to prevent abuses, especially of the elderly or disabled.  Religious groups - particularly the Catholic Church -  have also opposed  such efforts, saying only God can take a life.

The California Medical Association has not taken a position on this bill, said Molly Weedn, associate vice president of public affairs. Historically the organization has opposed physician-assisted suicide because it contradicts the doctor's role as a healer, she said, adding that several Association committees will review the legislation.

The grassroots group Compassion & Choices is behind the bill, and many others in state houses across the country. It has been working for several years to build support in California.

Californians personally touched by terminal illness joined with the lawmakers to voice support for the legislation.

Orange County Doctor Robert Olvera's daughter died last year after a 17-year fight with leukemia. The last four months of her life were filled with blindness, headaches and struggles to breath, Olvera said.

"My 25-year-old daughter should have had the option to request a prescription to prevent her four months of agonizing pain and torture," he said. "I watched Emily Rose decompose in front of me; she suffered horribly while I sat next to her not being able to do anything."

Lung cancer patient Jennifer Glass has been living with the disease for two years. She hopes the bill passes before she has to endure any more pain.

"I’m at peace with the fact that my life will end, but how it will happen terrifies me," she said. "Lung cancer is a terrifying way to die. I would find great comfort if I had another option: That I might choose to be done with cancer before cancer is done with me."

Disability rights groups expressed serious concerns about the legislation.

Marilyn Golden, senior policy analyst for the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, said there are no real protections in the law because a patient could be bullied into ending his life. There are great worries that seniors, the disabled and the mentally ill could be steered toward making an end-of-life decision, she added. In addition, the bill would not prevent patients from doctor shopping to find someone who will sign off, Golden argued.

"If this bill passes some people’s lives will be ended without their consent through mistakes or abuse," she said. "The supposed safeguards attached to the bill are very empty, they don’t really...protect anybody."

Golden asserted that disabled people's "quality of life is often devalued and we are concerned about whether doctors and nurses will explore our concerns and fight for our lives."

Another group, Californians for Disability Rights, has not adopted a formal position but does have concerns about the bill, said Anthony Goldsmith, a member of the organization's legislative committee. It has opposed physician assisted suicide measures in the past.

Goldsmith said the organization has questions about how the health care industry would implement a right-to-die law, and whether such legislation would protect the disabled.