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04-12-2005, 05:04 AM
State (of California) to weigh assisted suicide bill

Assembly committee will debate measure that could allow lethal drug dose for terminally ill

Monday, April 11, 2005

Less than two weeks after the death of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman at the center of a national debate over end-of-life issues, California lawmakers will jump into the fray, taking up the fight over assisted suicide.

Legislation that would make it legal for a terminally ill patient to take a lethal dose of doctor-prescribed drugs is to be debated Tuesday by members of the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

Schiavo, who court-appointed doctors determined had been in a persistent vegetative state for years, died 14 days after her feeding tube was removed. She would not have qualified for assisted suicide under the California bill because she was not suffering from a terminal illness and doctors would not have deemed her competent to make a decision about her own life.

But her March 31 death pointed a floodlight on end-of-life issues, according to Patty Berg, D-Eureka, co-author of the proposed legislation, AB654.

"It has brought the discussion of death out of the closet," she said.

The bill, co-authored with Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, D-Van Nuys, would allow people with less than six months to live to self-administer a lethal dose of medication.

The proposal has already been the subject of two lengthy and sometimes heated public hearings. On Tuesday, the nine-member Assembly Judiciary Committee will consider whether to follow Oregon's lead and endorse physician-assisted suicide.

"I think this takes place every day, in every state, but it takes place illegally and it's unregulated," Berg said. "It is like abortions before Roe v. Wade: It happened but it happened in secret."

Opponents of the bill say legalizing any form of assisted suicide is a slippery slope that eventually will open the door to include lethal prescriptions for those with mental illnesses, disabilities and other maladies. They contend that low-income patients could be coerced into choosing death so health care providers can save money.

"It will start off with just these really difficult, horrible situations and then eventually we will be euthanizing people without their consent," said Assembly Judiciary Committee member Tim Leslie, R-Tahoe City. "That is the road we are on. It will happen.

"It kind of makes life a relative value instead of an absolute value," he said.

Schiavo's case ignited a conversation of "death policy" that Leslie said "is just not right."

"In America, we should have a culture of life, not death," he said. "At the current time, there is a push to change our perspective on this. I'm not ready to make that change."

The California Hospital Association opposes the measure, while the California Medical Association voted last month to reaffirm its stance against physician-assisted suicide, calling it unethical. Compassion & Choices, an Oregon-based advocacy group for end-of-life services, is a sponsor of Berg's bill.

The bill is closely modeled after Oregon's 8-year-old landmark Death with Dignity Act. It would allow patients diagnosed with less than six months to live to obtain a prescription for a lethal dose of medication from their doctors. A doctor must declare a patient competent to make the decisions and a second doctor must concur. The lethal dose must be self-administered.

"This is a matter of an individual's choice. It isn't a choice being made by someone else," said Assemblywoman Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa.

Evans, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said she did a lot of soul-searching before deciding to endorse Berg's bill.

While polls show Californians consistently support the idea of assisted suicide, legislation and ballot measures here have repeatedly failed.

Seventy percent of Californians support the idea that incurably ill patients have the right to life-ending medication, according to a Field Poll conducted in February. A similar poll has been conducted six times since 1979, each time showing public support for the idea ranges from 64 percent to 75 percent.

Despite consistently high returns in the polls, prior attempts to legalize assisted suicide have failed. A bill was introduced in the Assembly in 1999, but failed to garner enough support to move out of the lower house. In 1992, voters defeated an initiative that would have allowed doctors to hasten the death of terminally ill patients, despite early support for the plan.

"Clearly the public is supportive of it. It's just a matter of whether they follow through," said Mark DiCamillo, Field Poll director. "When you change the law, when it rubs up against a social issue, it takes a certain ethical courage to follow up on your conviction."

But Assemblyman Ray Haynes, R-Murrieta, vowed a fierce fight against the bill. He scoffed at Berg's assertion that passage of the legislation will simply legalize a practice that already exists.

"Killing people ought to stay in the shadows," he said. "This is actively helping somebody die."

The bill, which also is scheduled to be considered by the Public Safety Committee, will go before the Appropriations Committee if passed Tuesday. From there, it would go to the full Assembly.

Link (http://www1.pressdemocrat.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20050411/NEWS/504110324/1033/NEWS01)