California considers a free hotline — for assisted suicide

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A  measure that would provide a government-operated toll-free telephone line for consumers and health providers seeking information about California's physician-assisted suicide law passed its first legislative hurdle Wednesday.

The State Senate Health Committee voted  7-2 in favor of the measure, which now moves to  the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel) introduced the bill, SB 1002, last month.  It would require the California Department of Public Health to establish and operate the toll-free line during regular business hours.

The controversial assisted suicide law, which takes effect on June 9, will allow some terminally ill patients to ask their doctors to provide them with lethal medication.  

There is a need for such a telephone line, George Eighmey, president of the Death with Dignity National Center, told KPCC.

"Right now about 10 to 15 percent of all of our calls ... are from California," said Eighmey. "People are wanting to know about the law - what are the rules, the regulations."

Compassion & Choices, the main group that backed the assisted suicide law, runs its own information line about the law. But Eighmey said it would be preferable to have a government-run line rather than one run by an advocacy group. 

A state-operated phone service would be similar to one in Oregon, where physician-assisted suicide has been legal for nearly two decades, said Compassion & Choices California campaign director Toni Broaddus.

"Even though few people [in Oregon] ultimately take the [lethal] medication, thousands of people ask about it," she told the committee. "People need a place to call and get their questions about the law answered."

But assisted suicide opponent Marilyn Golden, senior analyst with the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, argued that such a phone line would send a "mixed message" to Californians that's "contrary  to the state's goal of preventing unnecessary loss of life."

Monning, who co-authored the assisted suicide law, said the information line would not be created "to persuade people to end their lives ... This is not an advocacy line."