Opinion

Right-to-die bill dies in California, and takes hopes with it

A word to the California legislators who just killed the aid-in-dying bill:

You replaced a scalpel with a sledgehammer.

The bill couldn’t get enough votes to move out of the Assembly’s health committee, which is dominated, like the rest of the Legislature, by Democrats. Now the measure’s supporters say they might take the issue of assisted suicide for the terminally ill to the voters instead.

But a ballot initiative, as we have seen over and over again, is just a yes-or-no vote, up or down, all or nothing.

That's not to say the initiative would be crude and overbroad, but we know every law also carries within it a law of unintended and unforeseen consequences, and people are rightly concerned about the potential problems in something so sensitive as the right to die.

And a ballot initiative – especially one that’s a constitutional amendment, as this might be – is almost impossible to fix after the fact; to use a popular image, it’s like trying to change a tire on a car speeding down a freeway.

A legislative bill, on the other hand, is easier to improve before it passes and easier to repair even after it’s become law. Look at Proposition 13: For all the good it’s done, it’s almost 40 years old and is showing some structural cracks. But because it's in the state Constitution now, it would take a herculean effort to change it.

An assisted suicide law is exactly the kind of legislation that would benefit tremendously from the chiseling, polishing and fine-tuning that public hearings and discussions bring to bear, building in safeguards and nuances that might not become part of an initiative.

Instead, by stalling the legislation, the committee all but invited the up-or-down public vote of a ballot initiative – the sledgehammer, not the scalpel.

Democratic Assemblywoman Susan Eggman (D-Stockton) co-sponsored the bill. She’s a former hospice care social worker quoted by the Associated Press as saying her colleagues were uncomfortable with letting people decide to end their own lives. “The U.S. is a death-denying, death-defying culture, and one of the hardest things is to change culture.”

Los Angeles Democrat Miguel Santiago was quoted as saying that he does not vote in lock-step with the Catholic church, but “how to approach end-of-life was still an uncomfortable struggle for me.”

The Roman Catholic church was among the religious opponents of a similar measure that was killed in the Legislature in 2007. Then-Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez remarked that the issue was a difficult one that had been “demonized by the religious right and by groups that obviously have campaigned very hard against it."

Like the present Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, who supported the bill in part because of her mother’s harrowing struggle with cancer, I too have a personal story, a personal stake in this question.

My father died of Lou Gehrig’s disease, died in misery of this incurable and untreatable ailment. He kept two guns under his mattress – a horrifying exit  scenario for everyone – but my mother and I persuaded him to let us collect enough sedatives and painkillers to give him a peaceful exit. That meant checking out seedy flea markets for pills from who-knows-where, collecting family prescriptions handed out for other ailments, calculating dosages with little information to go on because his doctors would not, legally could not, help us.

As I was heading home with the drugs to end my father’s life, he died. My mother believes he exerted his immense willpower one more time, to spare us any legal blowback from giving him, with measureless love, the only gift that was left in our power, his own peaceful death.

The Legislature needs to do the hard work that can spare families like mine from all the hard work we had to go through on my father’s behalf. Ours was personal, and a choice. It’ll be personal for all of us, eventually, and it should be a choice, a legal one, for all of us too.

Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes

 

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