California Assisted Suicide Bill Stalls

The primary sponsors of legislation legalizing physician-assisted suicide pulled the bill hours before a state Assembly hearing July 7, with its authors saying the bill was dead for this year.

A group of Southern California Latino Democratic Assembly members broke ranks with their party to oppose the bill, a move assisted suicide advocates attributed to the intervention of the Catholic Church, specifically Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles created a website, ahardpill.org, with information and advocacy tools. The bill had already passed the state Senate, with votes largely along party lines.

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"The compassion that doctor-assisted suicide offers is hollow. And this legislation has dangerous implications for our state, especially for the poor and vulnerable," Archbishop Gomez wrote.

Effective lobbying by the coalition of all opponents was key, said Steve Pehanich, director of communication and advocacy for the California Catholic Conference, the bishops' public policy arm.

The bill's authors, Democratic Senators Lois Wolk of Davis and Bill Monning of Carmel, had already postponed a vote by the Assembly Health Committee in June, because they did not have sufficient support from Democrats on the committee.

"We are very pleased at the outcome and grateful for the hard work done by the assembled coalition at Californians Against Assisted Suicide," said California Catholic Conference executive director Ned Dolejsi in a statement. He credited the bill's withdrawal to the work of a long-standing coalition of physicians, health care workers, disability advocates and religious groups.

"Those of us advocating on behalf of disability rights organizations understand that choice is a myth in the context of our health care reality," said Marilyn Golden, senior policy analyst for Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund.

San Francisco Chronicle columnists Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross had attributed the bill's dwindling prospects to lobbying by Catholics. The pair wrote July 5: "The lawmakers' hesitancy comes as the Catholic Church in Los Angeles, which is home base for many of the Assembly members and strongly opposes the bill, is urging parishioners to call legislators and voice their objections."

Three states have laws permitting physician-assisted suicide: Oregon and Washington, where it passed by voter initiatives, and Vermont, where the Legislature approved it. In 2015, assisted suicide bills were defeated in states including Connecticut, Maryland, Colorado, Maine, Delaware and Nevada. Similar legislation is currently stalled in New York and New Jersey. In California, a similar bill failed in 2007.

The primary advocacy organization, Compassion & Choices, is thought likely to fund an initiative to put physician-assisted suicide on the ballot in 2016, Pehanich said.

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