California Lawmakers Debate Doctor-Assisted Suicide

Original Article
Dr. Ben Rich of the University of California, Davis, testifies in favor of an assisted suicide bill before the state Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. Wesley J. Smith, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute who opposes the bill, sits to Rich’s left. The bill’s co-author, Assemblywoman Patty Berg, D-Eureka, can be seen in the background. Sacramento Bee/Anne Chadwick Williams

Legislation to make California the second state to allow doctor-assisted suicide by terminally ill patients returned to the spotlight Tuesday after more than a year on a Capitol shelf.

Moral and ethical questions abounded in a nearly three-hour informational hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee, but one thing was perfectly clear: The lengthy delay hasn’t quieted controversy.

Assemblywoman Patty Berg, D-Eureka, vowed to keep fighting nonetheless.

“I believe in it with all my heart,” she said of the bill.

The committee is expected to vote on the measure next Tuesday. A Senate floor vote could follow.

Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, in a speech Monday to the Sacramento Press Club, said he personally supports Assembly Bill 651 but will not push his Senate Democratic Caucus to do likewise.

“This is a personal thing that everybody must decide for him- or herself,” he said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has taken no position on AB 651 and typically does not do so until legislation is in its final form and passes the Legislature.

In a January appearance at the Press Club, however, Schwarzenegger said that doctor-assisted suicide is a difficult issue that should be decided by voters.

“I personally think that this is a decision probably that should go to the people, like the death penalty or other big issues,” he said.

Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, who is teaming with Berg on the bill, said it was coincidental that AB 651 resurfaced only after ballots were cast in the June 6 primary.

But, ultimately, that might bolster prospects for the bill, he said.

“Members are no longer locked in battle with one another, so they may not be afraid that it’s going to be used against them,” Levine said.

AB 651 would allow mentally competent patients who are not expected to live for more than six months to obtain a prescription for life-ending medication.

The legislation contains numerous requirements designed to prevent a terminally ill patient from seeking life-ending medication frivolously, impulsively or under duress.

The measure requires that two doctors agree on a patient’s prognosis, requires a 15-day waiting period, and mandates counseling for patients who are not under hospice care.

Patients would have to administer the life-ending medication to themselves.

Before Tuesday’s hearing, Sandra Butler, a San Francisco woman dying of lung cancer, appeared at a press conference to support the bill.

“In the near future, I will reach the end of my days,” she said. “It is my desire to die peacefully in the arms of my loved ones, not in prolonged pain and agony.”

Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing wrestled with two ethical questions – whether AB 651 would affect the value that society places on life, and whether it would conflict with a doctor’s legal or ethical duties.

Six bioethics and medical experts, chosen by supporters and opponents of AB 651, were invited to testify.

Doctor-assisted suicide was proposed last year in the Assembly, but opposition prompted Berg and Levine to abandon a floor vote there and amend their proposal into AB 651, which was pending in the Senate.

Supporters see physician-assisted suicide as a right-to-die issue, while opponents argue it devalues life.

Dr. Ben Rich, a bioethicist from the University of California, Davis, spoke in favor of AB 651 and said there is a big difference between killing someone and letting that person die.

Rich dismissed claims that AB 651 would form a “slippery slope” that gradually would expand the circumstances under which physician-assisted suicide would be permitted.

“It’s my proposition that there’s a slippery slope every bit as steep when you’re talking about withholding and withdrawing life-sustaining treatment from patients,” he said.

Dr. Nicholas Gideonse, a doctor in Oregon, which currently allows physician-assisted suicide, said the 8-year-old law has not been abused.

“Prolonging a life deemed unwanted by the person living it, because of the ravages of terminal illness, demeans life,” he said.

Critics of AB 651 argue that legalizing doctor-assisted suicide could result in terminally ill patients seeking to end their lives because they don’t want to burden family members with their care.

Attorney Susan Penney, of the California Medical Association, said the proposed safeguards in AB 651 are not foolproof because they require subjective decisions about mental competence, undue influence and other factors.

“How will the profession be able to monitor whether or not the ethical or legal obligations are being met?” she said.

Wesley Smith, a Castro Valley attorney and a consultant for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, cited the Netherlands to support the slippery-slope argument.

“Indeed, since 1973 Dutch doctors have gone from killing the terminally ill who ask for it, to the chronically ill who ask for it, to the disabled who ask for it, to depressed people who aren’t even physically ill who ask for it,” he said.