Whether California will join the rest of the left coast in legalizing physician-assisted suicide depends largely on which Gov. Jerry Brown greets the bill nearing his desk — the progressive Democrat or the devout Catholic.
As a Democrat Mr. Brown would be expected to sign the legislation, which cleared the California Assembly in a 43-34 vote Wednesday with largely Democratic support after an emotional floor debate. The bill now goes to the state Senate, which approved a similar measure in June.
But Mr. Brown is also a former Jesuit novice in the Catholic Church, which adamantly opposes the bill. So far he has not revealed his position on Assembly Bill 2x-15, although he has taken issue with moving the bill during the current special session, which is supposed to be focused on health care financing instead of the regular session.
“Everybody’s interested because Jerry Brown’s a Catholic. He went to seminary as a young man,” said longtime California political analyst Allan Hoffenblum.
Which way will the governor go? “Your guess is as good as mine,” he said.
All Mr. Brown has said so far is that “this important issue merits serious consideration,” adding that it would be “more appropriate” to resume the right-to-die discussion during the regular session with the still-active two-year Senate bill, SB 128.
That bill, however, stalled in the Assembly Health Committee earlier this year after an enormous show of opposition from religious and disabled rights groups, who argue that an assisted-suicide law would put pressure on the terminally ill and those with disabilities to kill themselves prematurely.
Those organizations are now crying foul over the Democratic state legislature’s scramble to fast-track assisted-suicide legislation during the special session with little warning.
“While we oppose AB 2x-15 from a fundamental policy perspective, we also strongly agree with the Governor’s office that this bill is not appropriate for the special session on health-care financing,” said Teresa Favuzzi, executive director of the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers, in a statement.
The bill requires two doctors to approve end-of-life drugs for terminally ill adults, makes it a felony to coerce someone into suicide and includes a “sunset” provision under which the law would expire in 10 years.
Assemblymember Susan Talamantes Eggman, the Democrat who sponsored the End of Life Option Act, said Wednesday on the Assembly floor that she is “committed to this issue of people being able to die on their own terms” after witnessing the deaths of her mother, father and grandmother.
“Everybody in here who talked about their own experience with death, that is good, that is yours. Keep it, hold it, pray for the miracle,” Ms. Eggman said. “Other people want a different option.”
On the other hand, Democratic Assemblymember Mike A. Gipson said, “I have seen so many miraculous turnarounds in peoples’ lives when the doctors have given up, when the doctors have said ‘do funeral arrangements,’” as reported by The Sacrament Bee.
Tim Rosales, spokesman for Californians Against Assisted Suicide, said the bill’s proponents have been able to avoid many of the hurdles that come during the regular session.
“They couldn’t get it passed through the Assembly Health Committee — they didn’t have enough support; they were having trouble in the normal process,” Mr. Rosales said. “So now they’ve had to make an end run around things and utilize the special session to move this controversial bill, and pretty much rush it through with very little debate and discussion and public input.”
The once-moribund assisted-suicide issue gained life this year in state legislatures after the highly publicized story of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old California woman suffering from brain cancer who moved to Oregon to end her life under its assisted-suicide law.
More than 20 states saw right-to-die legislation introduced in response, but none of those bills survived until California revived the issue last month as part of the special session on Medi-Cal funding.
“They really haven’t dealt with Medi-Cal funding at all, but they’ve dealt with assisted suicide,” said Mr. Rosales, who noted that the debate is taking place during National Suicide Prevention Week.
The California bill is modeled after the law in Oregon, which became, in 1997, the first state to allow physicians to prescribe end-of-life drugs to terminally ill adults. Washington and Vermont have since approved right-to-die laws, and Montana courts have recognized it as a valid defense for homicide charges.
In August, however, the New Mexico Court of Appeals struck down a decision by a lower court that had essentially established physician-assisted suicide by deeming it “a fundamental liberty interest.”
The right-to-die movement includes Compassion & Choices, formerly the Hemlock Society, which receives funding from left-wing billionaire George Soros. The group has indicated that it will pursue a November 2016 ballot measure if the legislation falls short.
Even though the assisted-suicide bill cleared the Assembly, Mr. Rosales noted that 11 Democrats voted against the measure, which he described as “the largest amount of public opposition to assisted suicide we’ve ever seen from Democrats in California.”
“For the amount of money and national attention they’ve received, they’ve had a much tougher fight than they anticipated,” said Mr. Rosales.