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Local opposition mounting against assisted-suicide bill

By the time it becomes law or is shot down by state leaders, a new bill will cause Californians to ponder the difference between doctor-assisted death and suicide – or if there is any distinction at all.

Although the California Compassionate Choice Act is still quite a way from approval, there is already substantial opposition in Nevada County to the bill, which would allow physicians to give death-inducing prescriptions to qualified patients who want them.

Opponents fear the bill – AB 654, based on Oregon’s right-to-die law – could lead to a Nazi-like future, where the disabled, mentally ill and elderly would be subject to state euthanasia.



Proponents say the bill from Assembly members Patty Berg, D-Eureka, and Lloyd Levine, D-Sherman Oaks, is filled with safeguards to avert that kind of excess, and it simply provides a vehicle for death with dignity.

Hospice in opposition




Although the law does not name a specific drug to administer the death, a fatal dose of barbiturates is given in Oregon, said Will Shuck, Berg’s spokesman.

In an initial hearing on the bill in January, Berg said: “This is not … I repeat, this is absolutely not euthanasia, in which someone else makes the choice and imposes that choice on the individual. Neither is it assisted suicide, in which someone else assists the patient in hastening their own death.”

Dennis Fournier, executive director of Hospice of the Foothills in Grass Valley, disagrees with Berg’s assessment.

“It’s still patient-assisted suicide, even if they take the dosage themselves,” Fournier said.

The bill’s language says only the patient can administer the fatal medication.

Such a bill could offer a seemingly attractive way out for those who actually have several options for their treatment, Fournier said.

“When people are contemplating suicide and they hear the alternatives, they may reconsider. It may be the pain can be relieved or counseling can take care of the spiritual or emotional problems, and a person can then choose not to kill themselves.”

The bill also violates what hospice stands for, Fournier said.

“The basic tenet of hospice is not to prolong life or to hasten death. (Physician-assisted death) is such a slippery slope; it’s something we should steer away from as a society.”

The “slippery slope” term is often used when discussing physician-assisted death and was included in the official legislative analysis done for AB 654. According to the analysis, opponents worry that “the process might extend to non-terminally ill or socially devalued persons such as the elderly, chronically-ill, or people with disabilities, where the ‘right to die’ may become a ‘duty to die.'”

State Sen. Sam Aanestad, R-Grass Valley, agrees with that concern.

“In the Netherlands, hundreds of people are euthanized without their knowledge or permission. I’m doing everything I can to kill the bill.”

Aanestad also said, “it puts all physicians in a position they don’t want to be in,” of giving a patient a fatal prescription. “Most physicians don’t want that right.”

Party lines

Assemblyman John Laird, D-Santa Cruz, was for the bill in a 5-4 judicial committee vote last week that went along party lines with the exception of assembly member Cindy Montanez, D-Mission Hills, who voted against it. Laird said his vote was strongly influenced by his days as the director of an AIDS service agency in the 1990s.

“I was in the rooms of countless people who died in misery,” Laird said. “This would have been another option for them.”

Assemblyman Tim Leslie, R-Tahoe City, crossed the political aisle with Laird to get the Sierra Nevada Conservancy bill passed last year. But Leslie – who used to represent Nevada County as a state senator – could not align with Laird this time and cast his vote against the bill in committee.

In a recent editorial written for media outlets, Leslie said: “People may commit suicide on bad information. Every year people are told they have incurable, fatal diseases – only to find out later the prognosis was wrong. It is not hard to imagine doctors discovering in post-suicide autopsies that some patients were not terminal after all.”

The center dedicated to independent living for disabled people in Grass Valley, called FREED, is officially listed as an opponent of Berg’s bill in the state analysis, partially because of the terminal diagnosis question.

“Only a small percentage of doctors in Oregon thought they could predict death within six months,” said Ann Guerra, executive director of FREED, citing the time requirement now included in the bill.

“The six-month period isn’t real. An option of death shouldn’t be included in a health care package that doesn’t include everything else that someone might need to have a happy life or a comfortable life.”

Guerra said FREED is also afraid of the “slippery slope.”

“When you are talking about assisted suicide, you’re talking about hastening the death of those with disabilities. We support giving people pain relief, but where do you draw the line? The line is blurred.”

Laird sees it as a personal matter.

“The decision belongs to a patient, the family doctor and whomever they wish to include in the discussion. It’s about government intrusion and personal choice.”

According to Berg, “hastening a death is not a new concept. It happens every day, and it has for generations. But unlike the patient-controlled choice we are talking about in this bill, the current system can leave the patient out of the final decisions.

“The current practice is called terminal sedation. A patient is give adequate pain medication, and then nutrition and hydration are withheld. It can take weeks for a patient to die in this manner.

“It is our hope to give terminally ill patients the ability to ease their own passing, and the comfort of knowing that the option is there for them.”

Poll shows support

In a February survey taken by the California Field Polls, 70 percent said they favored the idea that “incurably ill patients have the right to ask for and get life-ending medication.” Only 22 percent said the option should not be available, and 8 percent were undecided.

The percentage agreeing with the statement jumped to 77 percent among Democrats, with 16 percent against, and 7 percent undecided. It fell to 64 percent agreement with Republicans, with 27 percent against and 9 undecided. Sixty-five percent of Independents and other party affiliates also agreed, with 22 percent against and 13 percent undecided.

The poll also found that 68 percent would want the option if they were terminally sick, while 28 percent would not, with 4 percent undecided. While the California Catholic Conference is against the bill, 64 percent of the Catholics polled said they would want the option, with 31 percent saying they would not and 5 percent undecided.

Protestant numbers wanting the option were at 58 percent, with 38 percent eschewing it and 5 percent undecided. Other religions answering said 78 percent would like the option, 18 percent would not, and 4 percent were undecided.

A similar bill, called the Death With Dignity Act, passed through the judicial and appropriations committee in 1999 before being stopped on the Assembly floor, according to the legislative analysis.

In Oregon, where the aid-in-dying law was approved seven years ago, 325 terminally ill patients have requested death assistance, and 208 of them gave themselves enough barbiturates to die.

California’s Compassionate Choice Act is now with the assembly’s appropriations committee. No one knows if it will survive that test, but it will most likely be the subject of passionate discussion for months or years to come.

About the Bill

The current language of Assembly Bill 654, the “Compassionate Choice Act,” says two doctors would have to agree a patient will die within six months in order to get a death prescription from the attending physician. Only the patient could administer the medicine.

The patient would have to be told of alternatives such as hospice and pain management, and next of kin would have to be notified if the prescription was approved.

No one suffering from dementia or mental illness would qualify, and a patient would have to request the prescription twice verbally and once in writing. The patient can change his or her mind at any time, and there is a 15-day waiting period before the medicine is administered, at which time the doctor must offer the patient a chance to rescind the decision.

Bills in the California legislature are subject to change at any point before they hit the governor’s desk for approval or rejection.

– Dave Moller


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