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Physician-Assisted Suicide Bill Scrapped in California

(UPDATED) Christian, disability, and medical groups persuade lawmakers to reject End of Life Option Act.
Physician-Assisted Suicide Bill Scrapped in California
Image: ChurchMilitant.com
The End of Life Option bill requires a doctor to obtain a written request for lethal drugs from a terminally ill patient.

Update (July 8): At least until 2016, California's End of Life Option Act is dead. Sponsors of the controversial measure on Tuesday withdrew it from the California Assembly Health Committee after a majority of the committee indicated they would vote against it.

Latino Democrats, who represent heavily Roman Catholic districts, were a decisive factor in the bill's withdrawal. But months ago, 54 Catholic, evangelical, disability-rights, and physician's groups joined Californians Against Assisted Suicide in its public campaign against SB 128, the Senate-approved bill. Joni and Friends, the Christian Medical and Dental Association, and Concerned Women for America joined the campaign.

"Suicide is not driven by public demand," wrote human rights activist Wesley J. Smith in the National Review online. "but rather, is a top-down ideological movement mostly pushed by the privileged who never have to worry about poor care or abandonment.

"If California does not pass the bill, it will mark a year in which half the country’s state legislatures were assaulted by Compassion and Choices with Brittany Maynard emotionalism—and it failed everywhere." Maynard, the terminally ill California woman who took her own life in 2014 after moving to Oregon, has become the public face of groups who back physician-assisted suicide due to videos she released before and after her death.

Supporters of the End of Life Option Act say they expect to start a signature campaign to put the measure before voters in the 2016 election. They may also make a fresh bid to push it through the legislature. "Seven out of every ten California voters want to see SB 128 become law," said Sen. Bill Monning, a key sponsor. "We remain committed to passing the End of Life Option Act for all Californians who want this option.”

But lawmakers said a key consideration in their opposition to the bill is their belief that poor people would be coerced by family members or others to end their lives prematurely. A leading medical ethicist affirmed this view last week by saying that low-income and uninsured Californians are the most "vulnerable" to pressure to take life-ending drugs from their doctors.


June 10:

Voting 23 to 14 last week, California’s Senate approved the End of Life Option bill (SB128), which now goes to the state Assembly for debate. The vote, drawing inspiration from the physician-assisted suicide of Brittany Maynard, was largely along party lines with the Democratic majority having enough votes to move the legislation forward.

Gov. Jerry Brown has not indicated whether he would sign the bill, if approved.

Wesley J. Smith, a senior fellow in human rights and bioethics at the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based think tank, fears that suicides in the state could increase by more than 30 percent if California legalizes physician-assisted suicide.

“Passing SB128 would dramatically increase California’s suicide rate,” he wrote. “Last year, 105 Oregonians died by assisted suicide. California’s population is 10 times larger than Oregon’s (37.5 million versus only 3.8 million), meaning that perhaps 1,000 of us could die each year by doctor-prescribed death if the bill becomes law. If so, California’s suicide rate would increase from about 3,300 annually to 4,300, an upsurge of about one-third.”

But supporters of SB128, including the mother and widower of Maynard, a brain-cancer victim who moved from California to Oregon and took lethal drugs to end her life last November, said that there would be no increase in the numbers of deaths. According to SFGate:

“An end-of-life option law in California will not lead to more people dying,” Dan Diaz, Maynard’s widower, said after the vote. “It will lead to fewer people suffering.” Through tears, Maynard’s her mother, Debbie Ziegler, said she felt her daughter’s presence as senators passed SB128. “Brittany wanted those dying to have the same options she had,” Ziegler said. “She died peacefully. Being able to do that allowed her to live to the last minute. . . . I’m so proud of her and I’m so proud of California senators because they heard Californians speak.”

The controversial bill received a huge political boost when the California Medical Association said it would no longer oppose physician-assisted suicide. This move breaks ranks with the American Medical Association and other state-level medical associations—all on the record against such laws.

Under the measure, two doctors must agree that the terminally ill person has six months or less to live and is mentally competent before doctors would prescribe an overdose of drugs that would cause death. The bill would also allow doctors to state that the cause of death was the underlying terminal illness, not suicide. But doctors would not be required to participate or to inform a patient of this end of life option. Before getting a prescription, patients would receive an evaluation and be required to request lethal drugs once in writing and twice orally to a doctor.

For months, faith-based, disability and pro-life groups, and medical professionals have been speaking out against the legislation. After last week’s approval, they stepped up their public campaign.

“Despite the claims from the bill’s authors that SB 128 ‘protects patients,’ multiple studies and stories have shown the dangers of physician-assisted suicide. From Oregon and Washington to Canada and the Netherlands, patient abuse is rampant. And once a society legitimizes voluntary suicide, it often progresses to involuntary euthanasia,” said Jonathan Keller of the California Family Council, a Christian nonprofit based in Riverside.

A recent report in First Things, looking at physician-assisted suicide in Europe, indicates that the so-called right to die with dignity eventually becomes a “duty to die” and that “suicide tourism” in Switzerland is growing rapidly:

In those countries that have legalized euthanasia (Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg) the numbers seeking the procedure are spiraling ever upward. In 2013 there were 1,087 cases of euthanasia in Belgium, up 27 percent on the figures for 2012, while 2012 saw a 25 percent increase on the numbers for 2011. In Holland, it has been estimated that 12.3 percent of all deaths are now via euthanasia. . . . recent incidents included one woman with an eating disorder, and another claiming to be suffering from tinnitus left behind two teenage children. . . . Many living in countries where it is outlawed are now taking part in the macabre phenomenon known as “suicide tourism.” So in Switzerland—where assisted suicide is permitted—the number of cases rose 700 percent within roughly a decade, having been boosted by foreigners making the journey to end their lives.

Opponents of SB128 are calling fresh attention to the story of California resident Stephanie Packer. Her doctors told her she had lupus and also terminal scleroderma. Three years ago, they gave her three years to live. But she is still alive and active in parenting her four children. She shared her story in a YouTube video.

Earlier in 2015, Her.meneutics covered the story of Kara Tippetts, a Christian author, blogger, and pastor’s wife who died of breast cancer in March. She drew national attention for her letter to Maynard to discourage her from ending her own life.

Oregon, Vermont, and Washington are the only states to legalize physician-assisted suicide. Since 1997, 859 people in Oregon have died using legally prescribed lethal drugs.

The California bill is modeled after Oregon’s Death With Dignity law, approved in 1994. But in 2008, the Michigan Law Review published one of the few critical overviews of Oregon’s experience and it found many significant problems, including:

  • The Oregon Public Health Division “acts as a defender of the law rather than as the protector of the welfare of terminally ill patients.”
  • Doctors do not adequately assess patients for depression before prescribing lethal drugs.
  • Few medical safeguards are in place to insure that patients are not coerced by family and friends to choose assisted suicide.
  • Legal and liability protection of the prescribing physician typically outweighs protection of the rights of a terminally ill patient.

The California Assembly, which also has a Democratic majority, has until September to vote on the bill. Opponents of the bill have created a website, ahardpill.org, to carry on the campaign against it. The Death with Dignity National Center is advocating for the bill.

The Gallup Poll on physician-assisted suicide, released in early June, found a 10 percent increase in those surveyed supporting euthanasia from 2014 to 2015. “Nearly seven in 10 Americans (68 percent) say doctors should be legally allowed to assist terminally ill patients in committing suicide, up 10 percentage points from last year. More broadly, support for euthanasia has risen nearly 20 [percentage] points in the last two years and stands at the highest level in more than a decade.”

Support was strongest among millennials. Gallup found 81 percent of those surveyed between age 18 to 34 support physician-assisted suicide.

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