LOS ANGELES – Buoyed by the resounding defeat of an assisted suicide bill in Vermont March 21, opponents of AB 374 – the California Compassionate Choices Act – are stepping up statewide campaign efforts against the measure proposing the legalization of physician-assisted suicide.
Members of Californians Against Assisted Suicide, a diverse coalition that includes medical professionals, disability rights groups, pro-life advocates and religious leaders, are actively lobbying legislators to reject AB 374.
Although the bill passed its first hearing March 27 in the Assembly Judiciary Committee along party lines (all seven Democrats voted in favor and all three Republicans voted against), coalition leaders are optimistic that AB 374 won’t breeze through its next assigned hearing, as yet unscheduled, in the Appropriations Committee.
Coalition representatives have already begun contacting Assembly members “who may be more open to listening to our public policy arguments against AB 374,” said Carol Hogan, communications director for the California Catholic Conference. She noted that Vermont’s assisted suicide bill, H-44, failed 82-63 on the New England state’s House Floor after passing both the House Human Service Committee and the House Judiciary Committee.
On the same day the Vermont House voted down its assisted suicide initiative, rallies and informational picket lines held in Sacramento and Los Angeles drew more than 250 participants protesting AB 374.
“Assisted suicide is a frightening proposition, especially when needy, impoverished and working people with serious illnesses do not even have access to affordable treatments,” said Western Service Workers organizer Bill Jennett at the Sacramento rally. “When HMO groups and Medi-Cal cuts continue to reduce the number of treatment options available to patients, a $50 lethal prescription is a cheap alternative to offer seriously ill or dying patients.”
At the Los Angeles rally attended by about 70 people, coalition member Bob Cielnicky of Fountain Valley argued against AB 374.
“We’re seeing an attempt to make a dramatic public policy change by relatively few people in government,” he said. “It’s a very dangerous proposal that jeopardizes the medical community (and) people who do not have adequate insurance who would be considered unprofitable patients if this were legalized.”
“Despite attempts at safeguards, there is no way to prevent an individual with inadequate health coverage from being pressured and coerced to choose physician-assisted death,” said Molly Israel, a nurse, multiple sclerosis patient and California Disability Alliance member.
“As a hospice nurse, I believe giving a patient the best comfort, palliative care and pain management is giving the patient true death with dignity,” Israel added. “No matter what you call it, suicide, either through a bottle of pills or from pulling a trigger, is never death with dignity.”
Rabbi Louis Feldman, a medical ethicist and certified Jewish chaplain, said the victims of physician-assisted suicide will be “the poor, the disabled, the ill-insured, vulnerable and lonely people. … We must remember that the road to Auschwitz was paved with a euthanasia program. Once you negate the inviolability of human life, anything is possible,” said Rabbi Feldman.
Assisted suicide legalization attempts in California have a history of failure, dating back to 1992’s Proposition 161 that was defeated by voters, 54 percent to 46 percent. A 1999 bill passed Assembly committees but was never brought to the floor.
The group Compassion & Choices, formerly known as the Hemlock Society, has been the main proponent of assisted suicide legalization. Currently, Oregon is the only U.S. state which has legalized assisted suicide.
At the March 27 hearing in Sacramento, Democratic Assemblywoman Patty Berg, who is Catholic and a co-author of the proposed legislation, promoted the bill as an issue of privacy and choice. Those testifying in support said the bill would allow dying patients to avoid pain and debilitating conditions in the last stages of their lives.
Tom McDonald, a 77-year-old Lake Oroville resident, told committee members that he is dying of melanoma, a form of skin cancer. He said the bill would “give me the chance to have a peaceful death, looking presentable, with my wife, daughter and son beside me. Don’t condemn me to a death that is so insidious, with unbelievable pain and no relief.”
Opponents said AB 374 would devalue life and could prompt some patients to hasten their death because the cost of health care would make them believe they were a burden to their families. They also cited the lack of safeguards in the bill and questioned whether doctors were always accurate in their predictions of how long “terminally ill” patients had to live.
“I think we get the diagnosis correct, but it’s the prognosis that’s often difficult,” said Dr. Richard Frankenstein, president-elect of the California Medical Association, which opposes AB 374.
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Contributing to this story was Julie Sly in Sacramento.