Bill to Assist Suicide Loses

Supporters concede defeat after a Democrat’s surprise opposition leaves plan a vote short on state Senate panel.

By Judy Lin — Bee Capitol Bureau
Published 12:01 am PDT Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Backers of assisted suicide were dealt a major blow Tuesday when a Democratic senator unexpectedly voted against a bill that would have let physicians prescribe life-ending medication to terminally ill patients.

Unable to gather the necessary three votes on the five-member Senate Judiciary Committee, supporters of the assisted suicide bill declared defeat on this right-to-die movement in California.

Sen. Joe Dunn, D-Santa Ana, who had been expected to vote to let the bill out of committee, said he feared the measure, however well-intentioned, would lead to assisted suicides its backers did not envision.

“Politicians let their people down today in a very big way,” said Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion & Choices. “People who were relying on them for comfort were abandoned.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger never took a position on AB 651. Instead, he said doctor-assisted suicide is a difficult subject that should be taken up by the voters.

Lee said her right-to-die advocacy group has no plans to launch a ballot initiative as it did in Oregon, the only state that allows doctor-assisted suicide. Lee said it would be too expensive to run a campaign in California.

“This is it,” she said.

AB 651, co-authored by Assembly members Patty Berg, D-Eureka, and Lloyd Levine, D-Van Nuys, would have allowed mentally competent patients who are not expected to live for more than six months to obtain a prescription for life-ending medication from their doctors.

The committee voted 2-2, with Dunn and Sen. Tom Harman, R-Huntington Beach, opposed. Sens. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, and Martha Escutia, D-Whittier, voted in support. Sen. Bill Morrow, R-Oceanside, was not present.

The legislation was designed to prevent a terminally ill patient from seeking life-ending medication frivolously by requiring that two doctors agree on a patient’s prognosis. It also required a 15-day waiting period and mandated counseling for patients not under hospice care.

Under the bill, patients would have had to administer the medication to themselves. Supporters said the bill would give terminally ill patients a way to avoid a painful death and let them die with dignity. Opponents argued that the real solution is quality hospice and palliative care.

James McGregor, hospice director at Sutter VNA, called the bill the wrong solution to a difficult problem.

“What is needed is a comprehensive care program to look after all those people who are most frail. They deserve our care, not a pill to end their life,” McGregor said.

Groups such as the California Medical Association, advocates for the disabled and some Latino organizations expressed concerns that the bill would have led down a slippery slope, causing caregivers to hasten the deaths of the elderly and disabled who are terminally ill without their consent.

They also worried that minorities and the disabled would be pressured to take life-ending medication. Angel Luevano, state director of the California League of United Latin American Citizens, said Latinos are vulnerable because they are the least likely to have health insurance. “It’s a nice option to say here’s a $5 pill rather than keep you in the hospital for a long time,” Luevano said.

During a 15-minute speech before casting his “no” vote, Dunn said he feared that money — whether it was the medical industry’s need to contain costs or the government’s willingness to provide more options for the needy — would cause the scope of the bill to expand to include nonterminally ill patients.

“More often than not, public policy decisions are driven, unfortunately, by money concerns,” said Dunn, who is being termed out at the end of the year. Lee called Dunn’s concerns unfounded because AB 651 set clear parameters about who would qualify to receive life-ending medication.

Others said Dunn acted in the best interest of the Californians.

“Financial interest will absolutely drive so much of what happens in public policy, and he exercised the power to stop this now so that it wouldn’t later be at the expense of victims who are disabled or without economic means,” said Marilyn Golden, policy analyst for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund.

Tuesday’s three-hour hearing was filled with emotional testimony from both sides.

Tom McDonald, a 76-year-old retired Aerojet technician from Lake Oroville, learned he had melanoma in three parts of his body on Jan. 5. Doctors estimated he had a one-in-10 chance of beating cancer even with chemotherapy.

McDonald tearfully asked senators not to let him and others endure a miserable death. “Don’t condemn me to a death that is so insidious, with unbelievable pain and no relief,” he said.

Supporters tried to make their case using the state of Oregon, which passed an assisted suicide measure in 1994. Since the Death with Dignity law passed, about 245 people with terminal illnesses such as cancer, Lou Gehrig’s disease or AIDS have hastened their deaths with prescriptions.

Though voters approved the measure 51 percent to 49 percent, the law didn’t go into effect until 1997 because of court challenges. Even now, the debate continues with efforts to repeal the law.

Kathryn Tucker, an attorney who represented supporters in Oregon, said California’s bill would have gone further in requiring the patient to take his or her own drugs.