Physician-Assisted Suicide Bill One Step from Governor's Desk

State Capitol, Sacramento (Craig Miller/KQED)

Supporters of a controversial bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide in California have two more days to get their legislation to the governor's desk.

The bill cleared one of its last major hurdles in the Assembly on Wednesday, with members voting 44 to 35 to allow doctors to prescribe lethal medication to terminally ill patients who request it. It is expected to be heard by the full Senate on Friday.

Authors were able to convert several opponents in recent weeks by adding more patient protections to the legislation, including a sunset clause that would end the law after 10 years, and a requirement for patients who have been prescribed the fatal drugs to sign a form two days before taking them.

“I didn’t originally support this bill. To me it did not have enough protections,” said Catharine Baker, R-San Ramon. “I believe now it does.”

She says she was also influenced by numerous faith leaders in her community who attend deaths and told her that assisted suicide is already happening.

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“People are slipped medications to kill them all the time," she says they told her. "And it is completely unregulated with no safeguards. We have an opportunity to provide a choice for someone who is in their final, painful hours, that is safer and well regulated and has a protection for human life and dignity.”

The bill requires patients to request the medication three times before they can receive it, once in writing. They must be mentally competent, and physically able to swallow the drugs themselves. Two different doctors must confirm a prognosis of six months or less to live.

Opponents in the Assembly argued that it wasn’t the role of the state to ratify peoples' decision to end their lives, especially because doctors are often wrong about terminal prognoses. Cheryl Brown, D-San Bernardino, said one of her relatives was given six months to live after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

“Six months later, he didn’t die,” she said. “Eight years later, after he had become a minister of the gospel, the Lord saw fit to take him home.”

Other opponents argued that low-income people would suffer under the bill, by being pressured to take life-ending drugs to save their families from the financial burden of pursuing more expensive life-sustaining treatments.

“Everything in the health care system is driven by cost. Everything,” said Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego. “I just can’t believe that this will actually provide choices for my community.”

This is the second attempt to push the aid-in-dying bill through this legislative session. A Senate version of the bill (SB 128) stalled in the Assembly this summer. Proponents introduced the current Assembly bill (AB X2-15) during Gov. Jerry Brown’s special session on health care financing.

Opponents tried twice to block the bill on procedural grounds Wednesday, but failed both times.

The bill goes next to the full Senate, which is expected to endorse the bill, after voting to approve the earlier version 23 to 15.

From there it goes to the governor's desk. Though Brown’s office argued that the special session was not the appropriate venue to advance the bill, it has not indicated where Brown stands on the issue, nor whether he will sign or veto the bill.