SACRAMENTO — California legislation that would allow dying patients to end their lives with doctor-prescribed drugs hit its biggest hurdle Tuesday after several Democrats on a key committee expressed reservations prior to a vote.
Bill supporters postponed the vote to July 7 after it became clear they did not have the 10 votes needed to pass the legislation out of the 19-member Assembly Health Committee. They’re now attempting to gain more support.
The bill would require two California physicians to agree that a mentally competent person has six months or less to live before prescribing a lethal prescription to a patient seeking to hasten their death. SB128 cleared the state Senate this month and faces hearings in the Assembly’s health, judiciary, and appropriations committees. If passed and approved by the full Assembly, the bill would head to Gov. Jerry Brown.
But for now, bill authors Sens. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, and Bill Monning, D-Carmel, are focused on the Assembly Health Committee.
”We’re going to redouble our efforts, listen carefully to concerns and make the best case we can,” Wolk said.
Sources said six Democrats on the committee expressed reservations, five of whom are members of the Latino caucus. Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, confirmed she is among those who oppose the bill, citing personal reasons.
Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, who chairs the California Legislative Latino Caucus, said the reservations are by individual members, not the caucus as a whole.
”Many caucus members are in strong support,” said Alejo, who supports the bill. “This bill is very important.”
There is strong opposition to the bill from the Catholic Church, some disability rights organizations and the Association of Northern California Oncologists, which said the bill runs contrary to the physician’s oath to do no harm.
Several Catholic Church leaders are using social media to rally opposition to the bill.
”I think opposition is growing on this legislation,” said Tim Rosales, spokesmen for California Against Assisted Suicide, an advocacy organization representing faith and disability rights groups. “The more people dig into this issue and learn about the bill, the more questions are raised about it.”
Wolk said the Catholic Church is stepping up efforts now that the bill is in the Assembly.
”The Senate passed it and I think most people thought it would not be as hard as it’s becoming,” Wolk said.
During the Senate vote on the bill, many lawmakers shared emotional personal stories about why they were supporting the bill, citing the death of a loved one or their own health scare. The Senate vote fell on party lines with one exception: Democratic Sen. Tony Mendoza of Artesia (Los Angeles County) voted against the bill.
SB128 was boosted recently when the California Medical Association became the only medical association in the country to drop opposition to what has long been known as “physician-assisted suicide.”
The state legislation is modeled after Oregon’s Death with Dignity law, which was enacted in 1997. Under that law, 859 people have died using the lethal drugs of the 1,327 prescriptions written. Montana, Vermont and Washington also allow a terminally ill person to request aid in dying, while a court case is pending in New Mexico to determine whether the state will allow assisted death.
This is the fifth time California lawmakers have considered similar legislation since 1995, with the previous attempts failing. A 1992 ballot measure to allow assisted death was rejected by California voters. Lawmakers who worked on past legislative efforts said opposition from the Catholic Church was critical to derailing previous attempts.
”We are short votes and are continuing to work on it,” Monning said. “We don’t underestimate the work ahead.”