In mid-August, California lawmakers announced a second attempt to legalize assisted suicide this year. In July, a nearly identical bill, SB 128, died in the Health Committee. The proposed legislation, now revived as Assembly Bill X2-15 (the End of Life Option Act), was introduced during a special legislative session on healthcare financing, which will allow it to bypass the previous committee in which it stalled.
Today, the Public Health and Developmental Services Committee will hold a hearing on the assisted suicide bill. This 13-member panel is a different and smaller health committee than the one in which the original bill previously stalled. Notably, it does not include the handful of Democratic Members who opposed the bill in July. It appears that as of Monday, AB X2-15 was not yet listed on the official hearing schedule for today.
AB X2-15 was introduced by Assemblywoman Susan Eggman (D-Stockton). Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel), who co-authored the previously stalled SB 128, said the revived Assembly bill has only “some very minor technical modifications.”
AB X2-15 would allow adults diagnosed with a terminal disease to request from a doctor a lethal drug dose to end his or her life. Just as with the original bill, it requires the patient to issue a written request in the presence of two witnesses, one of whom may be the patient’s heir. The bill follows Oregon’s definition of “terminal disease,” which has been interpreted over the years to allow for people with treatable, chronic illnesses — such as insulin-dependent diabetes — to take their lives. In fact, diabetes mellitus has been included since 2004 on Oregon’s annual report as one of the diseases for which people have legally ended their lives under the law.
California Governor Jerry Brown has pushed back somewhat on the evasive approach applied by pro-assisted suicide legislators by saying through spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman that the healthcare financing special session is not the appropriate venue to consider the issue of assisted suicide.
Likewise, Californians Against Assisted Suicide, a coalition of dozens of groups, including disability rights groups and medical associations, stated:
“This is a heavy-handed attempt to force through a bill that could not get any traction at all in committee… “[Linking this bill with healthcare financing] should be truly frightening to those on MediCal and subsidized healthcare, who quite logically fear a system where prescribing suicide pills could be elevated to a treatment option.”
Meanwhile, the pro-assisted suicide lobbying group, Compassion and Choices (C&C), formerly known as the Hemlock Society, announced that they “expect to work with the bill authors to champion the bill through four special session committees and two floor votes over the next four weeks.” The special legislative session ends September 11.
Supporters of so-called “Death with Dignity” or “End of Life Options” bills often point to Oregon’s 17-year history of legalized assisted suicide as a success. However, among the many issues and reported evidence of abuse usually overlooked by supporters is the aforementioned vague definition of “terminal disease” that allows for an inclusion of chronic illnesses.
Oregon annual reports on the Death with Dignity bill account for “Other illnesses” for which residents have requested the lethal dose, including: “benign and uncertain neoplasms, other respiratory diseases, diseases of the nervous system (including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease),… diabetes mellitus, gastrointestinal diseases” and more.
Regarding treatment of severe cases, national advocacy organizations representing people suffering from Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis have stated the following in their online resources:
Parkinson’s Disease Foundation: “At all stages of Parkinson’s, effective therapies are available to ease symptoms and make it possible for people with Parkinson’s to live well.”
National MS Society: “The key message to anyone living with advanced MS is that there is always more that can be done to make the situation better. If your doctor has “nothing more to offer,” it’s time to find another doctor…who will partner with you and other members of the healthcare team to manage your symptoms effectively and maintain your quality of life.”
The California bill was introduced just days after a San Francisco judge upheld the law prohibiting the practice in response to a lawsuit filed by terminally ill patients. Superior Judge Ernest Goldsmith was reported to have continually expressed concern for terminal patients who may feel pressured to choose assisted suicide because of financial worries with continued treatment.
AB X2-15 is the eighth bill proposed in California since 1994 seeking to legalize physician-assisted suicide. At least two dozen states have introduced assisted suicide legislation this year, though no legislation has passed.
If the California bill fails during special session, Sen. Monning said he will revive the original SB 128 at the start of the new legislative session in January 2016. Likewise, C&C has promised that if they lose in the legislature this year, they are “prepared to go to the ballot in 2016.” As such, the urgency remains for supporters of truly compassionate care to continue to educate the public on the harms of physician-assisted suicide and the common sense approach to support comprehensive palliative care and hospice programs.
Genevieve Plaster is a research assistant for the Charlotte Lozier Institute.