California bill would allow aid in dying
by Seth Hemmelgarn
A California bill that would allow mentally capable adults who are dying from a terminal illness to ask for aid-in-dying medication is moving through the state Legislature.
Senate Bill 128, known as the End of Life Option Act, by Democratic Senators Bill Monning (Carmel) and Lois Wolk (Davis) recently passed out of the Senate 23-15. Two senators didn't vote. The legislation is now in the Assembly.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 11-0 Tuesday, June 16 to support the bill.
Monning praised the Senate vote in a statement.
"I am gratified that my colleagues in the Senate support a compassionate option for terminally ill patients who are making difficult end of life decisions in their final days," he said in a June 4 news release.
Wolk stated, "With the passage of SB 128, we are one step closer to ensuring Californians have access to all options to limit suffering at the end of life."
The act would establish criteria that a patient who's been diagnosed with a terminal illness would have to meet before they could be prescribed the medication. It's modeled after an Oregon law and other states that have aid-in-dying options.
Michael Saum, 35, a transgender man who lives in El Monte, California, volunteers with Compassion and Choices, which is one of SB 128's supporters.
In 2007, the group says, Saum was "initially diagnosed with a brain tumor" and last August, his doctors confirmed his cancer had come back.
"Michael's doctors told him he will likely die painfully within the next few months from the Stage IV brain cancer that has spread throughout his body," a news release from Compassion and Choices says.
In a phone interview last week, Saum said he felt "pretty sick."
"My head hurts really bad today, and I'm very nauseas," he said, adding, "You don't realize the importance of this bill until you're in this position" and you've been "told you're going to die no matter what," as he has.
"Why can't I just end it before I have to go through more pain sand suffering?" Saum asked.
He said he doesn't have plans to end his life, and he'd make those arrangements "only if that bill goes through, before I actually die, and I don't see that happening."
The legislation would only apply to California residents. Among the criteria people would need to meet before getting their medications, two independent physicians would have to confirm a prognosis of six months or less to live and that the patient is mentally competent enough to make their health care decisions. Medications would have to be self-administered. The legislation would establish felony penalties for anyone who coerced or forged a request.
Additionally, health care providers would be protected from civil or criminal liability, as well as professional disciplinary action, if they fulfilled requests from people who are terminally ill and mentally competent.
In San Francisco, gay Supervisors David Campos and Scott Wiener are among those backing the resolution supporting the legislation.
The city "recognizes that the choices a person makes at the end of life are inalienably grounded in that individual's life experiences," and also "recognizes that the practice of aid in dying is a desirable medical choice for many terminally ill, mentally competent adults," the resolution says, in part.
There are mixed views on SB 128.
Opponents include the coalition Californians Against Assisted Suicide.
Marg Hall, of coalition member of Communities United in Defense of Olmstead, a Bay Area grassroots disability rights group, said the bill "threatens to limit the choice of people who already have limited choices because of economics."
Hall, 67, a lesbian who lives in Berkeley and has health problems that include chronic pain, said she doesn't think the legislation can be fixed.
"There's a deep, deep level of social justice concern when you mix very cheap options with the health care system that's currently still infected with the profit motive," she said. "... Profit is so much a part of our health care system in this country, and introducing this policy change will generate issues" for people with disabilities and others.
Hall's group is named after a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling related to the rights of disabled people.
The California Medical Association had historically been opposed to physicians helping patients end their lives, but in May, the group announced that it was taking a neutral position on SB 128 and dropped its longtime opposition.
"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," CMA President Dr. Luther F. Cobb said in a statement. "The decision to participate in the End of Life Option Act is a very personal one between a doctor and their patient, which is why CMA has removed policy that outright objects to physicians aiding terminally ill patients in end of life options."
The association switched its position after some changes were made to the bill.
"Ensuring that participation in the End of Life Option Act is completely voluntary and that patients have the necessary protections has resulted in sound policy that we're now able to remove opposition from," Cobb stated.