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CURRENT ISSUE:  March 5, 2007VOL. 45, NO. 5Oakland, CA

Assisted suicide bill is again
being reviewed in Sacramento

Democratic lawmakers introduced a bill in Sacramento Feb. 15 that would allow doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs to terminally ill patients, drawing a swift response from opponents who say they will continue their intense lobbying against legalizing assisted suicide in California.

“Some people say this bill is about suicide. It is not,” contended Assemblywoman Patty Berg, D-Eureka, during a press conference in the state Capitol. “Suicide is when you can live, but you choose to die. This bill, on the other hand, deals with people who do not have a choice about dying.”

Berg, who is Catholic, is a co-author of AB 374, called the California Compassionate Choices Act, with Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, D-Sherman Oaks.

AB 374 contains language identical to legislation sponsored by Berg and Levine that died in a Senate committee last June, the third such attempt in as many years. It would allow a physician to prescribe a self-administered, life-ending drug for an adult who requested it and had been found by two doctors to be mentally competent and within six months of death.

The bill, which would require all state agencies to refer to assisted suicide as “aid-in-dying,” is similar to the Oregon law upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court last year.

Opponents of AB 374 say the legislation is unnecessary and could be dangerous to those with chronic disabilities or who are too poor to afford health care.

Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, a Los Angeles Democrat who is Catholic, at the press conference declared himself a joint author of the bill and said he is “ready to buck my Church” on the issue of assisted suicide.

“There’s no question that this topic stirs a lot of emotion and a lot of debate,” he said. “I think when you pare it down to its essence, however, this is about how people are going to live in the last days of their life.”

Ned Dolejsi, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state’s bishops, said he was disappointed at Nunez’s decision to support AB 374.

“We are sad and frustrated that the speaker would find it necessary to step out on a bill like this when there are so many other issues of importance to the vast majority of Californians, such as health care access, education and prison reform,” he said. “We’re also frustrated with his somewhat cavalier attitude toward his faith and his lack of awareness of the strong indications by the Latino population in the state that they do not favor assisted suicide.”

The California Catholic Conference has joined with Californians Against Assisted Suicide, a coalition of medical, ethical and disability rights groups, to fight the new effort to legalize assisted suicide.

The Web site of the CCC urges Catholics to call or fax their representatives in the Legislature, asking them to “oppose assisted suicide and to support laws that will continue to protect the medically dependent and the emotionally vulnerable.”

In addition to the California Catholic Conference, members of the coalition include the Alliance of Catholic Healthcare, the National Council on Disability, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the American Academy of Medical Ethics, Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, Not Dead Yet and about three dozen other organizations.

Tim Rosales, spokesman for Californians Against Assisted Suicide, said AB 374 could prompt a broader use of assisted suicide, especially among the elderly and disabled. Patients who are dying can be treated with pain medication to alleviate any suffering, he said.

“It fundamentally changes the relationship between a doctor and a patient,” Rosales said. “This bill allows doctors to prescribe a lethal overdose for the sole purpose of someone committing suicide.”

Rosales added that despite Nunez’s support for AB 374, members of the coalition opposing the measure are confident it will again be rejected by lawmakers.

“Our strength is in the number of people who oppose this measure and the diversity of people and organizations who are against assisted suicide,” he said. “We think we will be successful again in defeating this bill.”

In a Feb. 15 news release, the California Medical Association, representing 35,000 California physicians, reaffirmed its opposition to physician-assisted suicide, noting that assisting in someone’s death is in direct conflict with a doctor’s ethical duties.

The CMA “believes in humane and compassionate care for the terminally ill, including appropriate pain control and counseling for the dying and their families,” said Dr. Anmol S. Mahal, president of the CMA. “Assisting someone to die is unethical and unacceptable, and is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer.”

According to the news release, the CMA’s concerns about passing a law that would legalize assisted suicide include:
• Potential for abuse by health insurers and family members.
• A misunderstanding of pain control.
• The incapability of a doctor or other health care provider to truly determine consent of the dying individual.
• A lack of any scientific certainty in determining the course of a patient’s illness.
• The possibility that doctors and other health care workers could find themselves on a slippery slope that would extremely compromise medical ethics.

Advocates for the disabled who oppose AB 374 said such a law could lead to the unnecessary deaths of poor, disabled and elderly people who may feel pressured by a cost-driven managed care system.
“Assisted suicide purports to be about free choice and self-determination,” said Marilyn Golden, a policy analyst with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, in a Feb. 9 letter to members of the state Assembly. “But there is significant danger that many people would take this ‘escape’ due to external pressure.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in January 2006 that the assisted suicide issue should be decided by the voters and not by the Legislature.

According to the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, proposals to legalize assisted suicide are currently under consideration in Arizona, Hawaii and Vermont, in addition to California. Oregon is the only state to permit assisted suicide.

Since the Oregon law took effect in 1997, 390 people have requested prescriptions for lethal medication and 246 of them have taken it.

More information about AB 374 is available on the Web site of the California Catholic Conference at www.cacatholic.org and the Web site of Californians Against Assisted Suicide at www.ca-aas.com.

(Catholic News Service contributed to this report.)


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