Capitol Alert

California lawmakers introduce ‘death with dignity’ bill

Dan Diaz, widower of Brittany Maynard, talks with legislators after a news conference at the Capitol on letting people legally end their lives.
Dan Diaz, widower of Brittany Maynard, talks with legislators after a news conference at the Capitol on letting people legally end their lives. lrosenhall@sacbee.com

Flanked by the family of a brain cancer patient who left California to end her own life, state lawmakers Wednesday introduced a bill to allow doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs to terminally ill people who want to die.

Senate Bill 128 was prompted by the high-profile death in November of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old Californian who moved to Oregon last year after being diagnosed with an aggressive cancer her doctors said would kill her within months. Oregon and four other states allow the terminally ill to end their lives through doctor-assisted suicide, while California does not. Maynard worked to change that during her final months of life, teaming up with a “death with dignity” advocacy organization and recording videos pleading with policymakers to allow the sickest patients to choose their own fate.

“How each of us spends the end of our lives is a deeply personal decision and that decision should remain with the individual as a matter of personal freedom and liberty, without criminalizing those who help to honor our wishes and ease our suffering. This law will honor that freedom with appropriate protections to prevent any abuse,” Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, said in introducing the bill during a news conference at the Capitol.

She was joined by several legislators as well as Maynard’s husband and mother, who gave tearful statements before the cameras.

“Please help me carry out my daughter’s legacy,” Maynard’s mother, Debbie Ziegler, said after sharing the story of how her family uprooted their lives in California to relocate to a state where Maynard could choose how to die.

Maynard’s widower, Dan Diaz, called his wife’s decision “ethical and very logical.”

“This is not something that is any sort of mandate. Leave it to the patient to decide for themselves. A legislator or a religious figure should not get in the way of that. That’s pretty much a quote from Brittany,” said Diaz, who lives in the Bay Area town of Alamo.

The California legislation is modeled on Oregon’s law and would set limits on who can obtain a prescription for lethal drugs while protecting doctors from civil and criminal liability. Under the bill, only terminally ill and mentally competent adults would be eligible to request the fatal prescription, and their diagnosis would have to be confirmed by two doctors. Similar legislation is being considered in a dozen other states including Colorado, Florida, New York and Nevada, according to advocates with Compassion & Choices.

Proponents are pitching the bill as the “end of life option act” and say they dislike the term “assisted suicide.”

Religious leaders, advocates for disabled people and medical practitioners have banded together to oppose such legislation nationwide.

“If these bills pass, some people’s lives will be ended without their consent, through mistakes and abuse,” said a statement from Marilyn Golden of the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund in Berkeley. “No safeguards have ever been enacted or proposed that can prevent this outcome, which can never be undone.”

Tim Rosales, a spokesman for the coalition calling itself Californians Against Assisted Suicide, said some people who are diagnosed with a terminal illness will outlive doctors’ predictions. If they’re allowed to request a lethal prescription, he said, they may choose death too hastily.

“People who are newly diagnosed with a serious chronic or terminal illness are very susceptible to depression,” Rosales said.

The California Medical Association, which represents the state’s doctors, has traditionally opposed efforts to permit patients to end their lives with a doctor’s help. The practice is “fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as a healer,” said spokeswoman Molly Weedn. The medical association has not yet taken a position on SB 128.

The California Legislature last debated measures to allow the sick to take their own lives in 2006 and 2007. Those bills failed after strong opposition by the Catholic Church and other groups.

Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @LaurelRosenhall.

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