Physician-Assisted Suicide Bill Advances as Backers Add Sunset Clause

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State Capitol, Sacramento (Craig Miller/KQED)

With just one week to go in the legislative session, a bill that would legalize physician-assisted suicide in California was approved by the Assembly's finance committee and will move to the Assembly floor next.

The committee approved the bill with a new amendment: a sunset clause. If the bill is signed into law, it will remain in effect only until Jan. 1, 2026, unless another law extends or ends that date.

Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, a co-author of the bill, said a sunset clause can be used in "landmark legislation as one way to address concerns of people who may have hesitations."

"We think it's an effective tool to assuage concerns of some members and build confidence," Monning said. "If some of their concerns about patient protections are valid, there's a way to revisit the whole issue."

Under the End of Life Option Act, physicians could prescribe lethal medication to terminally ill patients who request it. The patients must be mentally competent and able to swallow the drugs themselves.

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After an earlier bill stalled in July, backers introduced this new one weeks later during a special session of the Legislature called by Gov. Brown.

Marilyn Golden, senior policy analyst with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, which opposes the bill, said the new amendment "does not make the law more acceptable."

She said the policy is "a recipe for abuse" and that an "heir who stands to inherit, or an abusive caregiver, can steer a person -- legally witness their request, pick up the lethal dose and even administer it, because no objective witness is required at the death, so who would know what would happen?"

Monning said that the bill requires two independent physicians to agree on the patient's health status and, if there's any doubt about the patient's decision-making capability, to refer the patient to a psychiatrist or psychologist for evaluation.

Another new amendment requires the patient to fill out and sign a form 48 hours before taking the lethal drugs.

With these new amendments, Monning said he is "cautiously optimistic" for the bill's passage. "We are as well postured as any other time in the history of this state to pass this historic legislation," he said.

Backers anticipate the bill will be heard on the Assembly floor on Tuesday. Then it moves back to the Senate, where two committees must pass it before it can move to the Senate floor. Golden said her group would continue to lobby legislators to vote against it.

Even if the Legislature approves the bill, it's unclear if Brown will sign it into law. He has indicated that he does not approve of this bill being heard in a special session that was called to consider funding for Medi-Cal and that this session is not the appropriate venue for this legislation.