In a make-or-break vote for a nationally watched bill, the California Assembly on Wednesday passed legislation allowing doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs to Californians stricken with terminal illnesses.
“What it will do is provide a measure of freedom to people who are dying,” said Assemblywoman Susan Eggman, D-Stockton, who spoke of watching the deaths of both parents and a sibling. “That choice is everyone’s to make for themselves.”
Faith and personal experience pointed lawmakers in different directions. One said she backed the bill despite her Catholicism. Some said it would have robbed them of time with now-deceased loved ones; others said it would have offered suffering family members a reprieve. Many fought back tears or openly wept as they spoke in a floor debate stretching nearly two hours.
Because an earlier, essentially identical version of the bill has already cleared the Senate before halting in the Assembly, proponents viewed passing the Assembly as a decisive test for their effort. Gov. Jerry Brown has not taken a position on the measure, although his administration has questioned the way lawmakers have pursued the bill – revived in a special session after the original measure died.
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To supporters, the measure constitutes an act of compassion, one allowing Californians to exert deserved control over their lives as they face the end. They argued it contains strong protections to ensure it is a carefully vetted individual choice, including having multiple physicians sign off after ensuring the patient is mentally stable and is predicted to die within six months. Many cautioned against letting the policy go to a voter initiative.
“These Californians do not have another legislative session to wait for us,” said Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood.
Rebuffing that plea, lawmakers who said they could not support the bill recounted their personal encounters with death. Some described watching loved ones outlive terminal prognoses and said the bill before them would extinguish hope of recovery. Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown, D-San Bernardino, recalled how her husband lived for eight years after he was told pancreatic cancer would kill him in six months.
“I have seen so many miraculous turnarounds in peoples’ lives when the doctors have given up, when the doctors have said ‘do funeral arrangements,’” said Assemblyman Mike Gipson, D-Carson, adding that religious organizations in his district had urged opposition.
Even with the California Medical Association adopting a neutral position after years of opposition, the bill has faced a barraged of opposition from the Catholic Church and from organizations that represent oncologists and the disabled. They argue the bill will allow untenable ethical situations and warn it could push dying Californians, perhaps prodded by unscrupulous relatives or insurance companies, to prematurely end their lives.
Framing the bill as a matter of healthcare policy, some lawmakers worried about the impact on low-income and minority constituents who lack access to sound healthcare. They wondered if those constituents would face pressure to end their lives in lieu of thorough treatment.
“I just can’t believe this will actually provide choices for my community,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, who opposed the bill. A colleague who expressed similar concerns, Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, D-Los Angeles, voted in favor.
The bill will have to clear a final vote in the Senate before heading to Brown.
California has tried and failed before to join Oregon as a West Coast haven for those seeking to hasten their deaths. But advocates believe this year is different. They have hitched a national publicity campaign to the tale of Brittany Maynard, a dying California woman who traveled to Oregon to end her life. And lawmakers removed a persistent political obstacle when the powerful medical association went neutral, declining to fight a bill that could result in doctors being asked to prescribe lethal drugs (conscientious objectors could refuse).
Despite heralding those favorable circumstances, legislators could not get their bill past the Assembly Health Committee earlier this year. They shelved that measure and emerged weeks later with the current one, which circumvented the Assembly Health Committee by passing through a new committee created for a special healthcare session convened by the governor.
“This important issue merits careful consideration,” the governor said in a statement when the bill was revived. “The process already well underway with the two-year bill, SB 128, is more appropriate than the special session.”