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Is California Next in Line?

In Sacramento, backers of an assisted-suicide law say they've gained a lot of momentum from the court ruling. But they still face major obstacles.

January 18, 2006|Jordan Rau | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — California advocates of assisted suicide said Tuesday's Supreme Court ruling erased a significant legal objection to their campaign, but the ethical qualms of wavering lawmakers remain a substantial obstacle to approval this year.

"It obviously paves the way for state action," said Dario Frommer (D-Glendale), the Assembly majority leader, who has not decided how he will vote. "I don't think it does anything to mitigate the intensity of the debate."

State lawmakers submitted a "death with dignity" bill last year but abandoned the effort in July because of a lack of support. They have resurrected the measure in the state Senate and plan an aggressive campaign in coming months.

If approved, California could become the first state since Oregon to let terminally ill patients obtain prescriptions of lethal drugs to kill themselves. Vermont is the only other state where such a measure is being actively considered by legislators.

"This ruling is an enormous boost in the efforts of both states" as well as in other countries, said Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassions & Choices, a Portland, Ore., and Denver-based group pressing for such laws nationwide. "I got a call from Canada saying 'Congratulations, we're counting on your wind.' "

But the narrow focus of the court did nothing to allay a broad alliance of opposition from disability rights groups, independent living centers and religious leaders.

Objectors fear that the poor and disabled might be steered toward assisted suicides for economic reasons, leading to state-sanctioned euthanasia, and that people diagnosed with less than six months to live -- the only ones eligible under the bill to obtain a legal prescription of barbiturates -- might have been given a wrong prognosis. Also, suicide is forbidden in many religions.

"This decision was not about whether assisted suicide was good or bad policy. It was about states' rights," said Marilyn Golden, a policy analyst with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based group with an office near San Francisco. "I don't think this case can really gain them more supporters."

A February 2005 Field Poll found that 70% of Californians supported the idea that "incurably ill patients have the right to ask for and get life-ending medication." The concept has held majority support among people of both parties and in Field polls since 1979.

However, assisted suicide measures failed at both the ballot box in 1992 and in the Legislature in 1999. Last year's proposal won approval in two Assembly committees, but with all Republicans against it, supporters could not muster 41 Democrats necessary to pass it on the Assembly floor, so they did not bring it up.

The measure's backers are now echoing the tack used to win passage last year of another contested social measure: the legalization of gay marriage. They are presenting the California Compassionate Choices Act first in the more liberal state Senate, in hopes that approval there would add impetus to the campaign in the Assembly. A hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected in March.

"This decision certainly gives us a lot of momentum," said Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys), one of the sponsors. "We've had a lot of members say, 'Well, let's see what the Supreme Court says.' "

People on both sides of the debate agreed that so many legislators' positions are uncertain that a reliable vote count is not possible. "We still have some convincing to do," said another sponsor, Assemblywoman Patty Berg (D-Eureka).

One legislator who is a target of lobbying is Assemblywoman Nicole Parra (D-Hanford). She said her concerns were based on her family's experience with an uncle who slowly deteriorated from a debilitating disease. She said she feared he would have killed himself to spare his family the emotional burden of his illness.

"If God's going to take them, I don't want suffering to happen, but it should occur naturally and not be assisted," she said.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declined Tuesday to state his view on the issue.

Washington state, Maine and Hawaii have all rejected assisted suicide laws. California backers said with more extensive discussion, lawmakers would come to accept that giving people the option of dying is in some cases the most humane response for those in pain and near death.

"Members still have this knee-jerk fear of death," Levine said. "The Supreme Court vote gives them a little bit more comfort that this is OK, society says it's OK."

The learning curve in Sacramento is steep because the Senate has never considered the measure, so its intricacies will be new to those legislators. Levine also noted that if backers fail to pass the measure this year, term limits will force out many of the lawmakers they have worked hard to persuade.

"If we don't prevail," he said, "we'll have a whole lot of reeducating to do for all the members who are not here now."

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