After a debate marked by raw and personal tales of loss, the state Senate on Thursday advanced a proposal to allow terminally ill Californians to end their lives with drugs prescribed by physicians.
If the measure wins approval by the Assembly and Gov. Jerry Brown, California will join five other states in legalizing assisted suicide for dying patients. The legislation would apply to requests by mentally competent adults with six months or less to live.
FOR THE RECORD:
Assisted suicide: An article in the June 5 Section A about the state Senate's approval of an assisted-suicide bill incorrectly reported that a similar measure had previously passed in the Assembly before being rejected by a Senate committee. The bill approved Thursday was the first to pass either legislative chamber.
The Senate proposal, titled the End of Life Option Act, is modeled after a voter-approved law that took effect in Oregon in 1997.
Although debated here for decades, the issue gained momentum after Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old Californian who was terminally ill, decided to move to Oregon last year to end her life rather than suffer pain and debilitation from an aggressive brain cancer.
Before her death, Maynard videotaped an emotional appeal to California lawmakers to give residents an aid-in-dying option that was not available to her. Brown called Maynard in the weeks before her death to discuss the legislation, according to his office. "They had a conversation prior to her passing," said Evan Westrup, a spokesman for the governor.
Maynard's husband and mother were in the Senate chamber Thursday during the two-hour debate.
The Senate measure "is about how we die in California," said Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis) as she opened the discussion. Passage of the bill, authored by Wolk and Democratic Sen. Bill Monning of Carmel, would permit the terminally ill "to voluntarily end their lives in peace," she said.
Wolk talked of the prolonged, "brutal" death of her own mother from cancer and said the proposed law would give Californians an alternative to such suffering.
"Simply having a prescription is in itself a source of relief, knowing that if things got really bad that one would have an option to end one's life with less suffering and in peace," Wolk said.
The measure passed on a largely party line vote of 23 to 14. Its prospects in the Assembly are unclear, and Brown, who once considered becoming a Catholic priest, has not taken a public position on the proposal.
"This is a governor who will struggle with this issue, given his background," Wolk said at a hearing in March.
Republican Sen. John Moorlach of Irvine questioned the morality of the proposal.
"For me, it's unconscionable, and I can't be a party to it."
Other senators cited religions that consider suicide a sin and said elderly people might be coerced into taking their own lives if they felt they were a burden on their families.
"Greedy heirs can have an influence," said Sen. Jeff Stone (R-Murrieta).
Sen. Joel Anderson (R-San Diego), his voice choking with emotion, said he had been temporarily disabled in the past and thought of suicide to avoid putting pressure on his family.
He also noted that his mother was diagnosed with cancer. "She was given weeks, but she lived for years."
Sen. Ted Gaines (R-Rocklin) asked how physicians could ethically aid others' deaths.
"Doctors should kill disease. They should kill pain," he said. "They should not kill their patients."
The legislation includes safeguards against abuse, supporters say. It would require two physicians to confirm a patient's prognosis of six months or less to live, as well as the patient's mental competence to make healthcare decisions.
The patient would have to make two oral requests to a physician for help in dying, at least 15 days apart, with witnesses to the requests. The medication would have to be self-administered. In addition, the bill would create felony penalties for coercing a patient into making a request or for forging a request.
Supporters acknowledged that they now have work to do to win over the Assembly and Brown. Similar bills failed in the Legislature in 2005 and 2007.
FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this article said that one of the previous similar bills was passed by the Assembly. Thursday's bill was the first to clear either house.
In addition, California voters voted down a 1992 proposal that would have allowed physicians to administer lethal injections to their patients.
But Wolk said times have changed.
Since Oregon adopted its law in 1997, medical aid in dying has been authorized in Washington state, Montana, Vermont and New Mexico. Public opinion polls have shown that voters are more likely to support such a measure now.
Monning, who said the public wants a "compassionate option," said a ballot initiative would be likely in California if the Senate bill fails this year.
Its supporters received a boost last week when the California Medical Assn. dropped its opposition to the measure, SB 128, saying physicians could decide for themselves whether to assist deaths by prescribing drugs.
But many doctors continue to object to it, as do many religious leaders and activists for the disabled who fear that group could be put under duress to end their lives prematurely.
The California Catholic Conference, the Medical Oncology Assn. of Southern California and the California Disability Alliance note that similar bills have failed recently in Connecticut, Delaware and Colorado.
"This bill is simply about protecting doctors and HMOs from liability," said Marilyn Golden, a senior policy analyst for the Berkeley-based Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, "and tells people with disabilities who face a terminal diagnosis that may well prove inaccurate that there is no dignity in our lives."
Brittany Maynard's dying wish should be remembered, her husband and mother said Thursday.
"She used the last portion of her life to fight for the rights of other terminally ill patients," said her mother, Debbie Ziegler.
"These are people who have no hope."
After the vote, Ziegler tearfully hugged lawmakers, telling them, "I'm so grateful."