Jul 7, 2015 7:03 PM

California right-to-die bill stalls in blow to movement

The Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) In a blow to the right-to-die movement, California lawmakers on Tuesday dropped one of the strongest legislative efforts in the U.S. to allow terminally ill patients to legally end their lives.

The move came despite pleas involving the case of Brittany Maynard, who moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Oregon, which has a right-to-die law, when she was 29 so she could die on her own terms after a brain cancer diagnosis.

Aid-in-dying advocates had hoped the nationally publicized case would prompt a wave of new right-to-die laws. But no state has passed such legislation this year, with efforts defeated or stalling in Colorado, Maine, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and elsewhere.

The authors of the California legislation that would allow doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs lacked enough support to get through committees this year amid fierce religious opposition.

Democratic Assemblywoman Susan Eggman, a former hospice care social worker who co-authored the bill, said her colleagues in the Legislature were uncomfortable with the prospect of allowing people to end their own lives.

"The U.S. is a death-denying, death-defying culture, and one of the hardest things to change is culture," Eggman said.

Sponsors vowed to continue the fight in the Legislature. Meanwhile, aid-in-dying advocates have said they would take the issue to voters if the effort by lawmakers failed.

"We owe it to Brittany Maynard's family and terminally ill Californians to pursue every available remedy to give them relief from unbearable suffering," said Toni Broaddus, California campaign director for the right-to-die group Compassion and Choices.

Maynard's husband Dan Diaz, who has lobbied lawmakers on behalf of the right-to-die bill, said he's optimistic about the future of the movement after the influential California Medical Association dropped its opposition and bills were introduced in two dozen states.

"All of those things, I'd say, are enormous victories or huge steps, and those came about because of Brittany's story," Diaz said. "It is a very personal and very emotional topic, and that's fine. People need to think about it and work through it."

The California measure was passed by the state Senate but hit a roadblock in the Assembly Health Committee. The panel includes at least two lawmakers who said they were reluctant to vote to allow patients to kill themselves after watching their own parents die from terminal illnesses.

Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, D-Los Angeles, said he wanted to see advancements in treatment and prevention of diseases before allowing life-ending medication as a last resort. He cited his own father, saying his pancreatic cancer could have been caught before it spread.

"I've seen suffering first-hand, and we have to make sure we relieve people's suffering," Gomez said. "Those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds should have the most complete information, feel the least coerced and see other options."

Other reluctant lawmakers represented heavily Catholic districts in the Los Angeles area, where the archdiocese actively opposed the legislation.

Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, a Los Angeles Democrat who once considered becoming a priest, said he doesn't vote in lock-step with the church, but the "question (of) how to approach end of life was still an uncomfortable struggle for me."

Religious opponents including the Catholic Church helped defeat similar legislation in 2007 in California, saying it amounts to assisted suicide and goes after God's will.

"The more people know and understand and learn about assisted suicide and really get into the policy of the debate, the more they begin to have questions and concerns," said Tim Rosales, a spokesman for Californians Against Assisted Suicide, a coalition of disability rights advocates, oncologist associations and religious groups.

Some advocates for people with disabilities say terminally ill patients could be pressured to end their lives to avoid burdening their families.

Montana, Oregon, Vermont and Washington have court decisions or laws permitting doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs. A court ruling is pending in New Mexico.

California's bill was modeled on Oregon's law, which has been used in more than 750 deaths since voters approved it in 1994.

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