California lawmakers grapple with 'right-to-die' legislation

As a bill that would allow physicians to prescribe life-ending drugs approaches a vote Tuesday, support for the legislation seems to be weak.

Hector Amezcua/The Sacramento Bee/AP
Deborah Ziegler holds a photo of her daughter, Brittany Maynard, with her husband Gary Holmes after the California Senate passed SB 128 in Sacramento, Calif. on Thursday, June 4. SB 128 allows for physicians to assist in the death of terminally ill patients.

Assisted suicide advocates in California appear to be in the minority as a bill that would legalize physician-assisted suicide comes to a vote Tuesday.

After the case of Brittany Maynard – who was diagnosed with brain cancer and last fall moved from California to Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal – gained national attention in late 2014, those in favor of “death with dignity” hoped the cause would catch on.

So far this year, though, such legislation has not been passed in any state, and was defeated or stalled in Colorado, Maine, New Jersey, and elsewhere.

A case was also brought to Manhattan’s Supreme Court in February challenging the conflation of aid-in-dying with manslaughter. Harry Bruinius of the Christian Science Monitor wrote,

A group of physicians and terminally ill patients filed suit in the Supreme Court of Manhattan, challenging the interpretation of a state manslaughter statute that includes anyone ‘who intentionally causes or aids another person to commit suicide.’

The plaintiffs argue the statute’s scope was never intended to cover doctors who prescribe a lethal dose of drugs at the request of a mentally competent patient. The legal tactic echoes advocates’ preferred use of the term ‘aid-in-dying’ rather than ‘assisted suicide.’”

The Roman Catholic church is one of the most vocal enemies of aid-in-dying, arguing that it goes against the will of God. California Catholic Conference spokesman Kevin Eckery said churches were encouraging people to reach out to lawmakers to express opposition to the legislation, but that the bill was already losing traction.

"As people are more familiar with the legislation, they become more and more opposed to it," Mr. Eckery said.

Representatives of Catholic districts surrounding Los Angeles have withheld support for the current bill, the vote on which has already been postponed once due to a lack of support from Democrats on the Assembly Health Committee.

Los Angeles Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez (D) is among those reluctant to give the bill his stamp of approval, but for personal rather than religious reasons: Mr. Gomez cared for his father who was received a terminal diagnosis, and said he was concerned that the bill did not mandate mental health evaluations for patients wishing to end their lives.

"It's not a religious thing for me. It's how this is going to be implemented in the real world," Gomez said. "It's a matter of life and death, and we have to make sure we get this bill right.”

Currently, laws or court rulings allowing physicians to prescribe patients life-ending drugs exist in Oregon, Montana, Washington, and Vermont.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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