Last Tuesday, a proposed bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide in California was shelved by its primary authors due to lack of support, and is unlikely to be voted on this year. Senate Bill 128, which passed the state Senate last month, would have allowed doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill individuals seeking to die.
Democratic state Senators Bill Monning and Lois Wolk, who authored SB 128, pulled the bill from the Assembly Health Committee’s schedule of hearings Tuesday after it became clear that enough Assembly Members would not support it to allow passage. Among the opposed Members were a number of Latino Democrats, making up about a third of the committee, who spoke against the bill in the context of their personal experiences.
As a former emergency medical technician (EMT) working in ambulances, Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez (D-Pomona) opposed the bill, saying, “I was there to help protect and preserve life and give folks a second chance. It’s just something I couldn’t come to grips with in this bill.”
“I’m uncomfortable with the way suicide could be viewed across society, not just [for] the terminally ill,” contributed Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), whose mother lived past her doctors’ prognoses while terminally ill. Indeed, the general (non-doctor-prescribed) suicide rate in Oregon has been rising since 2000 and was 41% above the national average in 2010.
Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez (D-Echo Park) planned to abstain if the bill came to a vote, citing a concern for the poor and uninsured who may see assisted suicide as their only feasible option if the bill passed. Gomez recalled growing up without health insurance and seeing his father postpone cancer treatment until it was too late.
In response to these concerns, co-author Monning said, “We are continuing to work with Committee members to ensure that when the bill is presented, they are comfortable with the measure.”
Patty Rodgers, the California Assembly Health Committee secretary, confirmed in an e-mail Tuesday that “[t]he authors will not pursue this bill this year.”
Elder and disability rights groups also oppose the bill based on the concern – shown in numerous cases – that a legal “right to die” evolves into a “duty to die” for members of their communities who may feel pressured. While assisted suicide proponents claim that these worries have not been borne out in reality for Oregon’s 1997 law (after which California’s is modeled), they often cite Oregon’s lacking state health department records.
For instance, in response to Tuesday’s stalled bill, one advocacy group claimed there is not “a single documented case of abuse or coercion” in Oregon; however, the operative word is “documented” (in the state’s health department records).
Wesley Smith, senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism, explains in a Charlotte Lozier Institute paper:
[H]ow would supporters of assisted suicide know the [Oregon] law has worked without abuse? State oversight depends almost entirely on physician self-reporting, and the state agency in charge of oversight readily admits it does not know about assisted suicides that are not reported. Moreover, even if an abuse is reported or somehow uncovered, Oregon officials admitted to a United Kingdom House of Lords investigative committee that Oregon’s oversight agency does not have the legal authority—or budget—to conduct independent inquiries even if a legal violation is uncovered.
Nonetheless, supporters of California’s bill have already promised to pursue a voter ballot initiative next year. Moreover, the non-profit organizing support for legal assisted suicide, Compassion and Choices (formerly the Hemlock Society), maintains that the bill “remains viable” and reports that the group is “pursuing several strategies that will keep the bill moving.”
Discussing the pattern of defeat for assisted suicide bills across the nation, Tim Rosales, coalition coordinator for Californians against Assisted Suicide (CAAS), said in a statement Tuesday:
“Throughout the country we have seen assisted suicide proposals begin with very high approval ratings only to go down to defeat. In 2012, the Massachusetts Ballot Question 2 voter initiative began with nearly 70% approval in many public opinion polls only to go down to defeat 51% to 49%. Already this year we have seen assisted suicide legislation fail in Connecticut, Maryland, Colorado, New Hampshire, Maine, Delaware and Nevada. The more people learn about the issue, the more public opinion turns against it.”
Overall since 1994, there have been over 140 legislative attempts to legalize assisted suicide in 27 states. According to the Patients Rights Council, “With the exception of Vermont’s 2013 bill, all bills that are not currently pending were either defeated, tabled for the session, withdrawn by sponsors, or languished with no action taken.” (Emphasis added)
While this year’s defeat of California’s assisted suicide bill is a victory for pro-lifers and advocacy groups such as elder and disability rights groups, as well as religious groups, if a voter ballot initiative is already in the works for California in 2016, the urgency remains to continue to educate the public on the harms of doctor-prescribed suicide, as well as on the good of palliative and hospice care.
Genevieve Plaster is a research assistant for the Charlotte Lozier Institute.