California assisted death bill appears finished for the year

Highlights

  • Senate Bill 128 stalls again in Assembly Health Committee
  • Members object to assisted death for largely personal reasons
  • Critical deadline looms next week, but supporters vow to push forward

With votes lining up against the measure, California’s controversial assisted death bill was pulled from the Assembly Health Committee schedule Tuesday for the second time in two weeks and appears done for the year.  Senate Bill 128, which would allow doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill patients, passed the Senate last month but has encountered stiff resistance in the lower house amid lobbying from a coalition of medical, religious and disability rights groups. Of the 19 committee members contacted by The Sacramento Bee, just four said they would support the bill in its current form.  Proponents said they would continue to pursue the legislation, despite long odds and a critical deadline next week. Its authors were unclear, however, about how they might sway their wavering colleagues in order to meet a July 17 committee deadline – or whether they would gut-and-amend another bill already through the committee process to circumvent it. Supporters have also pledged to pursue a ballot initiative next year should SB 128 fall short.  

“We don’t foreclose any option,” said Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel.  Past attempts to legalize assisted death in California also faltered, but SB 128’s champions believed that public sentiment had turned in their favor. They surmounted a major political obstacle when the California Medical Association silenced its long-standing aversion to helping ailing patients die.  The measure passed the Senate last month in an emotional session. The 23-15 vote fell largely along party lines, with a majority of Democrats in support and all Republicans opposed.  But an email Tuesday morning from Assembly Health Committee secretary Patty Rodgers to legislative offices indicated that SB 128 had been shelved.  “The authors will not pursue this bill this year – waiting on a statement from the authors explaining details and future plans,” she wrote.

The bill stalled over largely personal objections from members, including a handful of Latino Democrats, who make up a third of the committee. Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman, D-Stockton, a co-author of SB 128, said the members she spoke to asked for no amendments, and some refused to speak with the family of Brittany Maynard, a Bay Area woman who became a national advocate last fall when she moved to Oregon to take advantage of the state’s assisted death law. Eggman suggested that the vocal opposition of the Catholic Church, which argues the policy is morally wrong, might have trumped other considerations.  “I appreciate the church’s consistency on life, but I don’t want any religious body making those decisions,” Eggman said, pointing out that she is Latina and Catholic herself. “We will talk to members about perhaps the difference between personal belief and good policy-making.”  A survey of Health Committee members indicated the bill would have been defeated had it gone to a vote.

The Bee received responses from 15 of the 19 members. Only four said they would vote yes: Democrats Rob Bonta of Alameda, Autumn Burke of Marina Del Rey, David Chiu of San Francisco and Susan Bonilla of Concord.  Seven were prepared to oppose it: Democrats Freddie Rodriguez of Pomona, Miguel Santiago of Los Angeles, Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego and Sebastian Ridley-Thomas of Los Angeles, and Republicans Tom Lackey of Palmdale, Marc Steinorth of Rancho Cucamonga and Marie Waldron of Escondido.  “You’ve got to look at what I’ve done before the Legislature … working to help save and protect peoples’ lives, giving that option – a second chance at life,” Rodriguez, who worked as an emergency medical technician, said Monday. “Letting folks have that option to end their life, it’s just something I can’t come to grips with.”  

Last-minute lobbying efforts focused on the committee’s Latino Democrats. Believing that they need to counteract the influence of the Catholic Church, proponents brought famed civil rights activist Dolores Huerta to the Capitol, touted the support of actor Edward James Olmos, and released polls showing that a majority of California Latinos and Catholics approve of the measure.   But several members denied that religious objections were a decisive factor.  “There are times when I can be in clear policy opposition to the Church – clearly with a pro-choice stand as a Democrat, I can say ‘no’ to the church,” Santiago, a practicing Catholic who once weighed entering the seminary, said on Monday. “It’s more of an internal struggle of how to look at the end of life more than any impact of religious or political” pressure.  Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, D-Los Angeles, planned to abstain from the Health Committee vote over concerns that SB 128 had insufficient protections for vulnerable patients, not for moral reasons. He said he grew up without health insurance and watched his father delay getting treatment for cancer until it was too late. 

He worried that uninsured patients would be more likely to choose assisted death because they felt it was their only treatment option, while those who do not speak English might not fully understand the choice.  “How do we deal with the fact that the system is fundamentally unfair to people in underserved communities?” he said.  Oncologists, clergy, Catholic hospitals, Latino community organizations and disability rights groups banded together to fight SB 128 as Californians Against Assisted Suicide. Tim Rosales, who coordinated the coalition’s campaign, said supporters of the bill were too focused on Latino members as a “monolithic community.”  He said his organization was able to cut across ideological and partisan lines by addressing the health care implications for the poor and disabled in California – a primary concern for many members – as well as faith-based arguments.  “Many of these groups don’t agree on much of anything else at all,” Rosales said. “To get them in one room, talking about one issue, leaving all other issues at the door, is unique to this coalition.”

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