Legislative panel approves right-to-die measure
April 12, 2005
SACRAMENTO – After testimony about personal rights and warnings about dangerous precedents, an Assembly committee approved legislation Tuesday that would allow the terminally ill to end their lives with a doctor’s assistance.
The bill, modeled after Oregon’s landmark law, cleared the Judiciary Committee on a 5-3 vote after more than a dozen hours of testimony, questioning and debate spread over three hearings. It now moves to the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
Assemblyman Tim Leslie, R-Tahoe City, was one of three on the committee who opposed the measure. He said passage of such legislation would put California on the map as a place that supports a “growing culture of death,” along with Oregon and the Netherlands.
The California Medical Association, with 35,000 members, is opposed to the bill as well as the 6,000-member Association of Northern California Oncologists.
If a majority of doctors in the state are against assisted suicide, then the state’s lawmakers and their constituents ought to pay attention to what the experts are saying, Leslie said.
“What this would do is give authority for doctors to help kill people. They would take a Hippocratic oath and turn it into a hypocritical oath,” he said.
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Supporters said the measure by Assembly members Patty Berg, D-Eureka, and Lloyd Levine, D-Sherman Oaks, would give people with no more than six months to live the choice to end their lives early and avoid painful deaths with a self-administered drug prescribed by a physician.
Berg said the bill was “about autonomy. It’s about providing a safe venue for patients to have a conversation with their doctors, a conversation that a huge majority of Californians say they would like to be able to have if they are ever put in a position to do so.”
A Field Poll conducted in February found that 70 percent of those questioned said people who are terminally ill should be able to get life-ending drugs.
Opponents said the bill could lead to the killing of patients who weren’t terminal or didn’t want to die.
“Physician-assisted suicide is the wrong answer to the right question,” said Dr. Robert Miller, former president of the Association of Northern California Oncologists. “The focus should be on doing everything we can to improve care at the end of life.”
Diagnoses of terminal illness can be inaccurate, he added.
Supporters said the bill has adequate safeguards to prevent misuse. For example, two doctors would have to find that a patient was terminal, and the patient would have to make three requests, at least one in writing, to receive the drug.
A patient who was found to be depressed or mentally ill couldn’t receive the drug, and a conservator or family member could not make the decision for a terminal patient.
“Our bill assures that the patient is always in control,” said Berg, who added that some terminally ill patients speed their deaths now. “But it’s done in secret without regulation and with desperation and in fear of reprisal.”
– Tribune City Editor Jeff Munson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.