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Emotional Testimony, Not Facts, Propels Passage of Physician-Assisted Suicide Bill in Senate Committee

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March 26, 2015

On March 25, in a packed hearing room at the state Capitol, the Senate Health Committee voted 6 to 2 in favor of SB 128, California’s doctor-prescribed suicide bill. Democrats voted in favor, with the two Republicans opposed. Senator Richard Pan, a Democrat from Sacramento and a physician, abstained. 

"Today's action by the Senate Health Committee to advance SB 128 is sad and disappointing,” said Edward “Ned” Dolejsi, executive director of the California Catholic Conference.

"We understand and share the concern for the dying expressed at today's hearing,” he said.  “It is a natural impulse for human beings.  But when someone asks for assistance in killing themselves, it is really a call for help, care and compassion during the dying process.  California law already allows for patients to refuse extraordinary care, but that is a far cry from aiding a patient in actively ending his or her life.” (Read the full statement here.)

The vote followed well-orchestrated, emotionally charged testimony on behalf of the bill organized by Compassion and Choices, formerly the Hemlock Society, the national organization promoting assisted suicide. Hundreds of people attended to voice their opinion, both for and against the measure.

SB 128, the End of Life Option Act would allow mentally competent adults, who have a terminal illness and less than six months to live, to request a lethal prescription to end their lives. The bill was introduced by Senators Lois Wolk (D-Davis) and Bill Monning (D-Carmel). 

The hearing began with testimony from Debbie Ziegler, the mother of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old Bay Area woman with terminal brain cancer, who moved to Oregon, which allows assisted suicide, to take medications to help her die.                                                                                                                        

Ms. Maynard, once told of the “horrible course the tumor would take if allowed to take its course,” her mother said, was comforted to obtain “the means to escape her suffering,” and wanted the same option for others who are terminally ill. 

A terminally ill mother in a wheelchair also gave emotional testimony. “I don’t want to be gasping for breath in front of my daughter,” she said. And a grieving father spoke of the suffering of his daughter who endured a 17-year struggle with leukemia.

No one can hear these stories without the deepest sympathy for the terminally ill and their families. But Catholic teaching reminds us that life is a gift from God, and taking a life, including one’s own, is a rejection of God’s sovereignty and love.

And, as subsequent testimony demonstrated, the facts demonstrate that SB 128 is poor public policy. 

“Physicians are notoriously bad at predicting life expectancy,” Dr. Warren Fong, president of the Medical Oncology Association of Southern California, told lawmakers. The bill, he said, would create “a slippery slope,” with later regulations likely to expand eligibility for the death medication. 

“It’s a “deadly mix” to “combine our broken health care system and assisted suicide, which would instantly become the cheapest treatment,” testified Marilyn Golden, Senior Policy Analyst, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund.

She pointed to the examples of Oregonians Barbara Wagner and Randy Stroup, who were denied coverage for their cancer treatment by the Oregon Health Plan, but it offered to cover assisted suicide. 

“Doctor shopping” also “gets around any of the hollow safeguards in this bill,” Golden said. Kate Cheney, 85, died of assisted suicide under Oregon’s law even though she had early dementia and personal physician declined to provide the lethal prescription. Her managed-care provider found another physician who prescribed the lethal dose. 

An article published in the Michigan Law Review in June of 2008, cited in the SB 128 bill analysis by Health Committee staff, concluded that safeguards written into Oregon’s “Death with Dignity” law are being circumvented and that the state does not collect the information it needs to effectively monitor the law.

Indeed, the “safeguards” in SB 128 will create the very lack of transparency needed to properly evaluate the impact of the law. Records will be kept private. And doctors cannot mention suicide as the cause of death in death certificates, only the underlying terminal illness, making it even more difficult to investigate potential problems.

In addition, the vast majority of suicides are associated with clinical depression or other treatable mental disorders, Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, associate professor of psychiatry and director of the Program in Medical Ethics at UC Irvine School of Medicine, UCI, testified. Yet less than 6 percent of the 752 individuals who have died by assisted suicide under Oregon’s law were referred for psychiatric evaluation prior to their death. 

SB 128 “weakens necessary efforts for depression intervention,” he said. This bill “sends a message that some lives are not worth living.” It would lead to “abandonment” of those suffering suicidal such thoughts rather than helping them, he said, and is “a radical departure” from standard medical care.

Sen. Jim Nielsen(R-Gerber) asked if California health plans will be expected to cover the cost for the medications authorized by this legislation. Sen. Monning responded that in Oregon, some health plans cover it and some don’t.

Assisted suicide is currently legal in three states and allowed by courts in two others, but many other states have rejected it.  A number of previous attempts to legalize the practice in California have failed.

The bill must still be considered by the Senate Judiciary and Appropriations Committees before it reaches the full Senate.

See related story:  Statement on Senate Committee Vote on SB 128 – Assisted Suicide