Monday, April 11, 2005

Assisted Suicide Is on The Agenda Again in California

I think we are about to see whether California bloggers can have some impact on proposed legislation in our State that raises the most profound moral, ethical, and religious issues possible: Physician-assisted suicide.

Remember this bill number: AB 654. It's working its way through the State Legislature now. Read it yourself: The HTML version of AB 654 is here, the PDF version here. It's fairly long. I'll have much to say about AB 654 in the coming weeks; for now I'll just post the basics. Here's the key provision:

An adult who is capable, is a resident of California, has been determined by the
attending physician and a consulting physician to be suffering from a terminal
disease, and who has voluntarily expressed his or her wish to die, may make a
written request for medication for the purpose of ending his or her life in
a humane and dignified manner in accordance with this chapter.

The proposed legislative findings are, in part, as follows:

The Legislature believes that dying patients should have choices throughout
the continuum of palliative care and that much must be done to improve access to hospice care and pain management. The Legislature finds that medical studies
have shown that between 5 and 10 percent of dying patients experience severe
pain and suffering that cannot be palliated by the best hospice or comfort care.
The Legislature finds that in response to the Death with Dignity Act in the
State of Oregon, that the referrals to hospice increased significantly. In
addition, doctors significantly increased the use of morphine and other strong
pain medications, thus improving the end-of-life care for more dying patients.
. . . It is the intent of the Legislature that the choice of physician-assisted
as defined in this chapter, be viewed as an end-of-life option for dying

(Emphasis added.) The semantic games are already beginning; note that we are now talking about "physician-assisted dying." The last time such a proposal was made, by ballot initiative in 1992, the terminology was "physician assisted suicide." (That initiative lost by 54% to 46%.) The term "euthanasia" has commonly been applied to such practices, but apparently no longer. In my view the Orwellian choice of palatable terms to describe a practice that is repellent to so many is one of the more disgusting aspects of this debate.

The Main Stream Media Takes Notice

Today's L.A. Times article on the bill is fairly informative. The bill's supporters claim strong public support. The Time writer, Nancy Vogel, seems to buy that claim:

A February survey found that 70% of Californians supported
physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill. The same poll found that 64%
disagreed with the argument that such suicide devalues life. But such support
hasn't led to policy changes.

Does that poll result sound a little off to you? It does to me. Wayne Johnson, described as "a Sacramento political consultant who worked to oppose the 1992 initiative in California," pretty much explains such numbers, and at the same time describes the battleground for public opinion:

. . . people often confuse physician-assisted suicide with the "pull the plug"
issue of whether to artificially extend someone's life, as in the case of
Schiavo. Once they understand the difference, Johnson said, they generally
"recoil" from doctor-assisted suicide.

"What we're talking about here is whether or not the government ought to be in the business of sanctioning suicide," Johnson said.
Well, yes.

Marilyn Golden, a "policy analyst" with the Disability Rights, Education and Defense Fund in Berkeley, also gets to the heart of the matter:

The last bright line in law we have is the one we have right now, which it is
illegal for a doctor or anyone to take an action with the intent to kill," said
Golden. "If we transgress that line, there's no more bright line."

If you drop back here from time to time you'll see regular analyses of AB 654. I'm going to pick it apart line by line. I look forward to your help in doing so!

A Plea

And while we're doing that, I am hoping that all those who oppose the bill (and even those who support it) will stick to the serious issues. Let's be determined an unwavering, but let's also watch our language. For example, what this bill is proposing would not be "murder." We don't need superheated rhetoric to defeat AB 654. The bill would be simply and terribly wrong, both ethically and morally, and it would be horrible public policy. All of that is more than enough to defeat it.

Speaking of the bill's defeat, if you'd like to tell your legislator how you feel about AB 654, contact and comment information for the State Assembly is here, and for the Senate here. Go to it!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I could never understand criminalizing suicide. Who are you going to prosecute? I won't argue with the murder or negligent homicide aspect of assisted suicide but for my initial point. 

Posted by Matthew Peek

Tuesday, April 12, 2005 2:15:00 PM  

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