Physician-Assisted Suicide Bill Revived in Special Session

State Capitol, Sacramento (Craig Miller/KQED)

Authors of a controversial bill that would legalize physician-assisted suicide are trying again. They reintroduced their bill Tuesday as part of the Legislature's extraordinary session, after it stalled earlier this summer in the Assembly Health Committee because they couldn't get enough votes.

By pursuing this political pathway, authors can sidestep some of their key opponents from that committee -- at least for now.

Most of the holdouts, Southern California Democrats including Lorena Gonzalez and Jimmy Gomez, will not serve on the special session health committee. So authors believe they can get the bill to the Assembly floor more quickly for a full debate and vote.

“We've continued our work, and we’re cautiously optimistic that there’s a growing sector of support in the Assembly,” said Sen. Bill Monning, D- Carmel.

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The new bill, AB X2-15, is the same as the original, SB 128. It would allow doctors to prescribe lethal medication to terminally ill patients who request it. Patients must be mentally competent and able to swallow the drugs themselves.

Sen. Monning and Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, say they decided to push the bill again after watching two legal efforts -- in San Diego and San Francisco -- fail in the courts this summer. The two judges in the lawsuits seeking to protect medically assisted suicide as a constitutional right said it was beyond the jurisdiction of the court to rule on such life and death matters.

“The judges have said that this is an issue that needs to be dealt with in the Legislature,” Sen. Wolk said. “We agree with that, and we think the time is now.”

Opponents have vowed to continue fighting the bill. Californians Against Assisted Suicide, a coalition of religious and disability groups,  recently echoed a concern voiced by the judge in one of the lawsuits: Will patients feel pressured to request lethal drugs for fear of burdening their families with expensive health bills?

The Catholic Church, in addition to moral objections, has lobbied lawmakers to oppose the bill for fear that low-income people, in particular, would be subject to such financial pressures, even coercion from family or insurance companies.

The opponents criticized the re-introduction of the bill as "heavy-handed."

"We’re shocked that they would use this legislative maneuver to jam through a bill that’s clearly a life and death matter for Californians," said Marilyn Golden, senior policy analyst with the Disability Rights and Education Defense Fund.

Sen. Monning said the bill has been amended to include strong protections against abuse, including felony provisions for health insurance companies that seek to deny treatment or condition a claim based on whether a patient seeks the lethal drugs or not.

The authors said their sense of urgency around the bill has only increased in recent weeks, after two vocal patients who wanted this option to end their suffering on their own timeline died without it.

“It is inhumane that we as a society in California cannot give them the relief that they need,” Wolk said. “We're talking about true compassion here.”

Jennifer Glass, a lung-cancer patient and outspoken advocate for the bill, died at her home in San Mateo last week, after five days in an induced medical coma. This was not the death she wanted.

She spoke with KQED several times about her limited choices at the end of life. She said prohibiting medically assisted suicide would effectively force her to prolong her death.

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“There’s nothing that can prepare you for when your doctor looks you in the eye and tells you, you have cancer,” she said last year. “But having choice helps me feel that I have some control over a situation that is uncontrollable.”

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