California Senate Approves Assisted Suicide Bill

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State Capitol, Sacramento (Craig Miller/KQED)

The California Senate passed legislation Thursday that would allow doctors to prescribe lethal medication to terminally ill patients who request it. The bill, SB 128, now faces a series of tests in the state Assembly.

“Californians with terminal diseases should have the autonomy to approach death on their own terms,” said Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel), one of the bill’s authors, calling the vote a “historic step forward.”

The 23-14 vote in favor of the bill comes just weeks after the state’s powerful physicians' group removed its opposition.

The California Medical Association switched its position to neutral, after the authors added greater protections for doctors and hospitals. The bill now has language to defend health care providers against being fired, suspended, or prosecuted if they comply with patients’ wishes to hasten their deaths.

Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis) says doctors who refuse to honor such wishes because of their personal ethics or beliefs would also be protected.

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We are not interested in changing the philosophy or doctrine that governs any doctor or individual or religious hospital,” she said. “This is truly voluntary.”

The bill  requires two doctors to confirm a prognosis that the patient who asks for the lethal drugs has six months or less to live, and has the mental capacity to make medical decisions. Patients would have to be able to take the drugs themselves without assistance.

A coalition of disability rights advocates, religious groups, and other doctors groups vowed to continue its opposition of the bill through the Assembly.

Opponents say legalizing assisted suicide presents opportunities for disabled or elderly people to be coerced into taking lethal medication by heirs, or indirectly by insurance companies who deny expensive, life-sustaining treatments.

“This bill is simply about protecting doctors and HMOs from liability and tells people with disabilities who face a terminal diagnosis, that may well prove inaccurate, that there is no dignity in our lives,” said Marilyn Golden, senior policy analyst at the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund. “Assisted suicide is dangerous.”