Some people are begging to die in California, while others are fighting to keep them alive no matter what those who are without hope would prefer.
They are locked in an emotional debate over whether California should join Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont, and New Mexico as states where physicians can legally help terminally ill patients commit suicide.
The End of Life Option Act, SB 128, goes before the Senate Appropriations Committee next after winning approval from the Senate Judiciary and Health committees.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Monning (D), who is one of sponsors of the bill, told PJM a hearing before the Appropriations Committee had not been scheduled and “usually takes a while.”
SB 128 is the third legislative attempt by advocates to gain approval for the idea of doctors prescribing a pharmaceutical end of life for terminally ill patients.
The End of Life Option Act would establish criteria for a patient who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness that must be met prior to being prescribed medication. SB 128 is modeled on current Oregon law and on statutes in other states where the aid-in-dying option is currently provided.
The bill includes the following provisions:
• Only adults with terminal diseases who are residents of California may request and obtain prescriptions from their physician for medication that the patient has the capability to self-administer. A person may not qualify solely because of age or disability.
• Two separate physicians are required to confirm the patient’s prognosis of six months or less to live and that the patient has the mental competency to make her own healthcare decisions.
• Two oral requests are required to be made by a patient with a terminal disease to a physician, a minimum of 15 days apart, in addition to one written request, with two witnesses attesting to the request before the prescription is written.
• Patients maintain the right to rescind their request for the medication at any time. Only the patient may administer the medication.
• Safeguards against any coercion of patients by establishing felony penalties for coercing or forging a request.
• The attending physician is required to discuss feasible alternatives or additional treatment alternatives with the patient, including, but not limited to, comfort care, hospice care, palliative care, and pain management.
• Physicians, pharmacists, and healthcare facilities are protected from civil or criminal liability, and from professional disciplinary action, if they fulfill a terminal, mentally competent individual’s request.
• Participation by doctors, pharmacists, and healthcare facilities is voluntary.
• No insurance policy may be conditioned upon or affected by a person choosing to request aid-in-dying medication.
In addition to the states that already have medical aid-in-dying statutes, more than half a dozen other states are also considering similar legislation this year, including Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Nevada, Iowa, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
Testimony before the California Senate Health Committee in March included a posthumous video recorded by Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman who moved to Oregon so that she could commit suicide legally after being diagnosed with brain cancer.
Thanks to digital technology, Maynard told the story from beyond the grave of how she and her family were forced to move from their home in California to Oregon so that she could legally commit suicide.
“How dare the government make decisions or limit options for terminally ill people like me,” she said on the video that was recorded less than three weeks before her death.
Maynard’s testimony was not the only offering from proponents of SB 128.
“Having aid-in-dying as an end of life option provided great relief to Brittany,” said Dan Diaz, Brittany’s widower. “I promised Brittany I would do everything in my power to fulfill her mission to make this end of life option available to all Californians.”
Debbie Ziegler, Brittany’s mother, testified about her mission to keep her only daughter’s legacy alive.
“I will make my daughter Brittany proud by standing up and telling her story even if my voice shakes, even if I choke back tears,” Ziegler said. “I hope that no other Californian has to go through what Brittany did.”
Opponents of the legislation were just as emotional as the survivors of Bethany Maynard. They warned that no bureaucratic system or government procedure is flawless.
“Where assisted suicide is legal, some people’s lives will be ended without their consent through mistakes and abuse,” Marilyn Golden, a senior policy analyst with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, testified before the Senate Health Committee.
Ned Dolejsi, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, released a statement following the Health Committee vote in which he called the result “sad and disappointing.”
“The ‘safeguards’ in SB 128 are illusory precisely because they are arbitrarily set, with no sound medical rationale,” Dolejsi added.
The organization Californians Against Assisted Suicide has been running an online petition campaign against the End of Life Option Act.
The group believes, according to the text of the petition, terminally ill patients should never be encouraged to die and wonders who will really be making such a decision.
“When legalized, assisted suicide quickly becomes just another form of treatment, and the cheapest. In a cost-conscious healthcare environment, patients need to be protected from the implicit pressure to end their lives prematurely.”
But proponents of the Option to End Life Act don’t see the point of government standing in the way of the terminally ill for whom there is no hope.
“It should be a fundamental human right for people with terminal diseases to determine the quality of their final days based on their own personal beliefs,” Monning (D) said. “Californians with terminal diseases should have the autonomy to approach death on their own terms.”
Dr. Robert Olvera wishes his 25-year-old daughter, Emily Rose, who passed away in April 2014 after a four-month agony from a rare form of leukemia, had been allowed to die with the help of medication.
He said, “My daughter suffered horribly as I sat next to her, unable to make it better.”