September 6 to 12 is National Suicide Prevention Week, and yet almost as if in a cruel joke, the California legislature has fast-tracked a bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide in the state. Just yesterday, the “End of Life Options Act” (AB X2-15) passed the State Assembly by a vote of 44-35.
The bill now goes to the Senate for a vote this Friday, where it is expected to pass since the Senate passed a very similar assisted suicide bill earlier this year. That earlier bill stalled in committee. If the current measure passes, it would take effect in 31 days unless Governor Jerry Brown vetoes it. The Governor has not made any public statement on the bill, except that he was displeased at its introduction into his special session on healthcare financing.
The deceptively named “End of Life Options Act” would allow adults with a terminal diagnosis to request lethal drugs from their doctor in order to cause their death.
Supporters of the bill believe it has the appropriate safeguards to protect against abuse and coercion; however, during the bill’s hearing in the Public Health and Developmental Services Committee last week, the bill’s author, Assembly Member Susan Eggman (D-Stockton) responded to a question about undue influence, saying:
“We have tried to close every door possible for somebody to point to that. Is any … does anybody get coerced into, you know, going for a cup of coffee when they don’t want to? I don’t know, I mean, some things – there’s just no way to stop. But within this bill, it is a felony to coerce somebody.” (emphasis added)
Because the bill does not require there to be any witnesses at the time the patient takes the lethal drugs to end his life, there can be no way of knowing in each case that the person remained free from coercion to the very end. More importantly, as admitted by the bill’s author, there can be no way to prevent coercion, and one can only hold the influencer accountable if it is discovered after the irreversible act of the patient’s self-induced death.
Tim Rosales, spokesman for the coalition group Californians Against Assisted Suicide, responded to the bill’s passage in the State Assembly, saying,
“We appreciated many eloquent statements of assisted suicide opposition from progressive legislators representing low income districts. The bipartisan opposition and narrow Assembly vote indicates that there are still so many unanswered and troubling issues with this bill as it’s rushed through this special session.
“This bill remains opposed by groups representing people living with disabilities, cancer doctors, people advocating for the poor and uninsured and faith based organizations.”
During this weeklong national campaign to prevent suicide, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) is encouraging people to learn the risk factors and warning signs. Included in their list of factors that increase the chance for someone to commit suicide are:
- “Serious or chronic health conditions and/or pain”
- “Exposure to another person’s suicide, or to graphic or sensationalized accounts of suicide”
- “Access to lethal means”
In the state of Oregon, where assisted suicide has been legal practice for 17 years, the rate of general suicide (i.e., not assisted suicide under the bill) among adults aged 35 to 64 is the second highest in the nation at 27.3. Additionally, the non-assisted suicide rate has increased 49 percent from 1999 to 2010, compared to the national increase of 28 percent according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control. While it may not be possible to link an increase in suicide solely to the legalization of assisted suicide, it is quite noteworthy that the state experienced a much higher increase than the national average since the law was put in place.
If California, the most populous state in the country, passes this assisted suicide bill, it would not be surprising if the general rate of suicide would also dramatically increase.
During National Suicide Prevention Week, it is important to acknowledge that assisted suicide – the abrupt ending of one’s life by taking lethal drugs obtained from a doctor – is not a compassionate response to suffering and has no place in the medical profession guided by the Hippocratic Oath’s “First, do no harm.” Instead, efforts should be made to fund palliative care and hospice programs which offer patients hope and real comfort in their last days. The history of Oregon’s assisted suicide experience has shown that the most vulnerable patients are left open to abuse and coercion – a history that could be repeated in California.
Genevieve Plaster is a research assistant for the Charlotte Lozier Institute.