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Legislators Drop Suicide Bill for Now

Times Staff Writer

A “death with dignity” bill died quietly in the California Legislature on Monday, with proponents still struggling against steady religious and cultural currents.

Although popular opinion in the state is said to favor the sanctioning of doctor-assisted suicide, two Democratic lawmakers announced that they would -- for this year -- abandon their efforts to push through a law.

“A lot of people understand the issue; a lot of people don’t,” said Assembly member Patty Berg of Eureka. “For the ones that don’t, you need time to explain it, to walk them through it.”

The bill would have allowed terminally ill people to get a lethal prescription to hasten their deaths. Polls show a solid majority of Californians favor such a law, but Berg and Assemblyman Lloyd Levine of Van Nuys could not muster enough votes in the face of strong opposition from the Catholic Church and disabled activists.

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The Death With Dignity Act cleared two committees but was never brought up for a vote on the Assembly floor. Levine said 33 of the 80 lawmakers had committed to vote for the bill -- short of the necessary 41.

He said some lawmakers told him that they opposed the bill for religious reasons, including two Catholics who had promised their bishops that they would not vote for it.

The Catholic Church teaches that life is sacred from conception to natural death, and the California Catholic Conference lobbied hard against the bill.

So did the California League of United Latin American Citizens, which argued that doctor-assisted suicide is incompatible with Latino values, and the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, which argued that such a law would encourage suicide among the depressed, poor and newly disabled.

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Berg, herself a Catholic, said she would persist because most Californians, regardless of religious or political affiliation, support the right of incurably sick people to get a doctor’s help in ending their lives. A Field poll in February found that 70% of Californians support the idea, and 68% would want the option for themselves.

“I think that something that’s supported by 70% just can’t be stopped forever,” said Berg, adding that she would resubmit the bill in January.

Opponents of the legislation questioned the popularity of the idea and vowed to continue working to defeat it.

“The supporters of this kept trying to say there was a ton of support behind this, that people were clamoring for this,” said Tim Rosales, spokesman for Californians Against Assisted Suicide. “But at the end of the day, they couldn’t muster enough votes to get it out of the Assembly.”

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“When they bring it up in January,” he said, “it’s going to be as dead as it is today.”

The Berg and Levine bill, AB 654, is modeled after an Oregon law passed by voters in 1994 after the Oregon Legislature rejected similar legislation. That law allows a person diagnosed with less than six months to live to get a lethal prescription of barbiturates after asking for it at least twice verbally and once in writing. Doctors can refuse to write the prescriptions, and a patient must ingest the drugs without help.

More than 200 Oregonians have used the law to speed their deaths since it took effect in 1998.

Levine said he and Berg would spend the next six months “educating the members as to why the time has come for this law in California and why they don’t need to be afraid to vote for it.”

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“Like any great legislative battle, you don’t win it quickly,” he said.

Meanwhile, a parliamentary procedure Monday gave a second chance to another socially contentious bill that had failed to clear the Assembly -- AB 19 by Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), which would legalize gay marriage.

Leno amended a separate bill that had cleared the Assembly and moved to the Senate, AB 849, to contain the same-sex marriage provisions. The bill faces its first hearing today in the Senate Judiciary Committee.


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