A California bill that would allow terminally ill patients to seek a physician-assisted death failed to advance in the state legislature this week.
Hours ahead of a vote in the Assembly Health Committee, lawmakers pushing forward the End of Life Option Act abandoned efforts to enact the legislation amid opposition from lawmakers representing heavily Catholic districts, The Associated Press reported.
“We have chosen not to present SB 128, the End of Life Option Act, today, in the Assembly Health Committee,” bill author Sen. Bill Monning (D) said in a press release announcing its removal from the committee’s calendar this year.
“However, we are continuing to work with the Committee members to ensure that when the bill is presented, they are comfortable with the measure,” he added. “Seven out of every ten California voters want to see SB 128 become law and we remain committed to passing the End of Life Option Act for all Californians who want this option.”
The bill would have authorized physicians to offer aid-in-dying to terminally ill patients in California as long as the patients had received a prognosis of six months to live from two doctors, submitted a written request and two oral requests to a physician at least 15 days apart and possessed the mental competency to make decisions about their own health care.
These and other safeguards — for physicians, hospitals, religious institutions and insurance companies — are based on a 17-year-old program in Oregon. Washington, Vermont, Montana and New Mexico also allow some form of physician-assisted death.
The legislation was inspired by the story of Brittany Maynard, a terminally ill 29-year-old who moved from California to Oregon to end her life two months before the legislation was introduced in January. In a series of videos released before and after her death, Maynard urged lawmakers to make “death with dignity” a more widely available option.
But just as when a similar right-to-die bill failed in California in 2007, this year’s legislation was hotly opposed by many religious groups. According to the AP, the Catholic Church and other religious groups have equated the bill with assisted suicide, which they say goes against the will of God.
One of those opponents, Ned Dolejsi, the executive director of the California Catholic Conference, told NPR that suffering is a part of life, and those who are in pain while dying are just receiving bad medical care:
“That’s a challenge we should all be addressing as a society,” Dolejsi said. “Not saying ‘Oh, because there is this pain … then we have to allow someone to separate themselves from the rest of us, and to take their own life,’ (but) ‘How do we make sure no one dies in pain and alone?”
On the other hand, Peg Sandeen, executive director of the Death with Dignity National Center, told NPR that religious people can align with physician-aided dying.
“Death with dignity is absolutely compatible with Christian views,” she said. “It’s about compassion. It’s about love; it’s about family. And those seem to be deeply held Christian values.”
While some medical organizations have opposed similar bills in the past, the California Medical Association (CMA), which represents 40,000 physicians in the state, reversed its objection to the practice in May and stated that such decisions should be made between patients and their doctors.
In contrast to Dolejsi’s claim that a painless death is always possible, Dr. Luther F. Cobb, M.D., president of the CMA, acknowledged that there are limitations to modern medicine:
“As physicians, we want to provide the best care possible for our patients. However, despite the remarkable medical breakthroughs we’ve made and the world-class hospice or palliative care we can provide, it isn’t always enough,” said Dr. Cobb. “We believe it is up to the individual physician and their patient to decide voluntarily whether the End of Life Option Act is something in which they want to engage. Protecting that physician-patient relationship is essential.”
Once again, however, the Catholic Church has managed to wedge itself exactly where it doesn’t belong — in the laws that govern the state and the very personal medical decisions that govern our lives.
Supporters of the bill have said they might take the issue of assisted suicide for the terminally ill to the voters instead, in the form of a ballot initiative. If they do, the legislation would have a good chance of passing. A new poll released by Compassion and Choices, the chief right-to-die advocacy group, found that 69% of Californians would vote for the bill if put in front of them. A similar survey by the Field Research Corporation, published in 2006, backs up these numbers.