It is unconscionable that California can’t seem to pass a modest, sensible bill that would allow terminally ill people to end their lives peacefully and painlessly. The authors of SB 128, California’s right-to-die bill, have pulled it from consideration for now rather than send it to certain defeat in the Assembly Health Committee, where they were several votes short of a majority.
By permitting doctors to write fatal prescriptions for patients with six months or less to live, the legislation would have provided dying people with an alternative to unbearable pain and debilitating loss of cognitive function. At the same time, the bill was packed with safeguards against the potential abuse of vulnerable people, including provisions requiring patients to be of sound mind, to speak to at least two doctors about their decision, to go through a waiting period and, ultimately, to take the medication themselves.
Such a choice isn’t for every terminally ill patient, or even most of them; in fact, during the 20 years since a similar law was passed in Oregon, only about 800 people have exercised their right to die by a doctor’s prescription. But all terminally ill patients had the option.
How, then, could such a reasonable and overdue proposal stall in an Assembly committee after passing a floor vote in the Senate?
Supporters point to the pressure on legislators from the Roman Catholic Church, a steadfast opponent. Several of the Democrats on the committee who were unwilling to vote in favor represent heavily Catholic districts. But the lawmakers themselves have either declined to comment about their reasons or have cited personal experiences rather than religious convictions; in some cases, those experiences involved the death of their parents. Opponents of the bill, including the church, have raised concerns that the availability of lethal prescriptions might provide incentives to insurers to reduce healthcare for seriously ill and dying patients, which could be particularly tough on poor and minority patients, who have fewer financial resources to pay for medical care. But SB 128 contains specific language prohibiting insurance companies from encouraging patients to consider doctor-assisted death. In Oregon, nearly all of the people who have chosen this option were white, highly educated and covered by health insurance.
Polls consistently show that 70% of Californians — and Americans generally — support right-to-die laws for the terminally ill. SB 128’s supporters have vowed that if the bill fails, they will bring an initiative to the ballot. That might become necessary if legislators are going to base their votes on unfounded fears, their religious preferences and personal family experiences. If such a measure is drawn up, those crafting it would be wise to mimic the careful wording in the stalled bill.