California Legislators Duck Euthanasia Debate

SACRAMENTO - The emotionally freighted issue of physician-assisted suicide has turned conventional political wisdom on its head in California.

Despite overwhelming public support, a bill in the state Assembly that would let doctors prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill patients so they could take their own lives has stalled for the year. Assemblywoman Dion Aroner, D-Berkeley, said she would not take up her measure on the floor until next year, even though it narrowly survived two committee votes.

"It's real clear the public is farther ahead than the Legislature," Aroner said, after she announced her decision. "It's going to take some time."

The day of the first committee vote, April 21, the respected Field Poll reported that 75 percent of Californians support physician-assisted suicide.

"While medical, legal and religious leaders continue to debate the propriety of euthanasia, the California public is virtually whole-minded about the issue," it said.

Even among Catholics, whose church leadership opposes physician-assisted suicide, 68 percent said incurably ill patients should have the right to receive life-ending medication.

Despite those numbers, California voters in November, 1992, defeated a citizen's initiative, Proposition 161, that would have allowed physicians to end the lives of terminally ill patients by lethal injections or other means.

The ballot measure was targeted by a last-minute television campaign financed by the Roman Catholic Church, the California Medical Association and other politically powerful opponents.Aroner's new legislation is sponsored by Americans for Death with Dignity, which backed Proposition 161.

Her bill is scaled back from the proposition to allow adult California residents diagnosed with a terminal illness to ask a physician for a prescription to end their lives. Unlike the initiative, physicians would not administer the drugs.

The patient request would have to be made orally, then in writing, not less than 15 days after the initial request. After receiving a second oral request, the physician would be required to offer the patient a chance to withdraw it.

And not less than 15 days after the first oral request would have to elapse before a lethal prescription could be written. Doctors would ask, but not require, patients to notify their next of kin. Patients would be referred to counseling, if physicians thought it was appropriate.

Despite the bill's safeguards, California lawmakers who sought to defeat it apparently put their personal reservations ahead of the polls on an issue that many said was the most emotionally wrenching they had ever decided.

Assemblyman Kevin Shelley, D-San Francisco, said it was not his Catholicism, but his experience with his mother that forced him to oppose the measure in committee. "It was a personal decision," he said. "We're not necessarily reflecting the public."

Shelley said his mother wanted to die after she suffered a stroke a few years ago, and might have taken her life if Aroner's bill had been law then. Instead, she has largely recovered and leads an active life.

"She would have met all the criteria," he said

Only one other state, Oregon, has legalized allowing doctors to prescribe medicines, usually barbituates, so terminally ill patients can take their own lives.

Like the Oregon measure, Aroner's bill explicitly forbids physicians from administering the fatal substances, as did Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the Michigan pathologist sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison earlier this year for giving fatal injections to a 52-year-old man with Lou Gehrig's disease.

The Oregon law took effect in October, 1997, and a study of the 23 persons who received lethal prescriptions in 1998 reports that 15 died from the medications, six died from their underlying disease and two were still alive on January 1, 1999.

When Aroner introduced her bill she said it would "provide people suffering from terminal illness the peace of mind to know that if their symptoms become so severe and debilitating, or their pain so great, they have the choice to end their suffering."

The Oregon study showed, however, that the leading reason for seeking the lethal prescription were concerns about loss of autonomy and control of bodily functions.

It also reported that financial considerations played little or no role in the decision.

For backers of the Aroner bill, like John Brooke, a retired United Church of Christ minister and supporter of defeated Proposition 161, the progress and debate have been "a real victory."

"I believe in a God of compassion," he said, "one that does not believe in unbearable suffering. I don't know what decision I might make, but I want to have the choice."