California’s Dangerous ‘ABX2-15’ Assisted Suicide Bill
by Peter D. Williams
The day before the House of Commons rejected the assisted suicide Bill of Rob Marris MP (Lab; Wolverhampton South West), the ‘right to die’ lobby in the U.S. succeeded in pushing a similar Bill through the Californian legislature. Whether the Governor Jerry Brown signs the legislation is yet to be seen, but like all such Bills, it constitutes a serious danger to vulnerable people.
Over the last ten months, attempts have been made by the American assisted suicide lobby to capitalise on public sympathy for the tragic case of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old Californian woman who in 2014 moved to Oregon so that she could be assisted with suicide, having been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer just two years after her wedding.
Up to now, all such attempts have failed, including when Californian legislators tried to pass Bill ‘SB 128’, colloquially known as the ‘End of Life Option Act’, through the Californian State Assembly (their lower House) earlier this Summer. Despite passing the State Senate, which is much more ‘liberal’ on such issues, the proposal had to be dropped when its sponsors realised that they had not the votes to advance it past the nineteen-member Assembly Health Committee, and cancelled the committee vote.
This was not the end of the Bill, which was merely stalled. It was a ‘two-year’ Bill, and could have come back for consideration. Another option was for politicians to play the kind of legislative shenanigans that are often played in U.S. politics. One such possibility, for example, would have been to engage in a “gut and amend” strategy, where a Bill that has already made its way through various votes is stripped at the last minute of its content and given completely new language that has no necessary relationship to what it was originally intended to achieve. The Bill, as amended, is then put to a vote, entirely circumventing the committees through which it would be unlikely to pass.
Another possibility soon presented itself in August, as legislators re-packaged and reintroduced the Bill, now as ‘ABX2-15’, as part of a special session on healthcare for the poor that had been called called by the Governor, Jerry Brown. This was a subversive abuse of the session, and actually severely criticised in an editorial by the pro-assisted suicide Los Angeles Times:
State lawmakers shouldn’t have subverted their own rules to allow a “right to die” bill to pass Friday during a special session on healthcare for the poor… The process stunk, as the worst kind of sausage making does. The right-to-die proposal, which would allow terminally ill patients to hasten death along if they can’t endure the pain or discomfort, stalled in committee during the regular session, only to be repackaged into a new bill for the special session on healthcare. It was an obvious charade. We didn’t approve of this tactic and said it would be preferable to return to the issue next year.
Tactically however, it was effective politics: the Assembly Health committee had different members for the special session, and so this time the Bill passed through the Assembly by 44 votes to 35. It then went to the State Senate, which approved it 23 votes to 14.
The campaign in favour of the Bill was helped by the approval of much of the Californian establishment. Every major newspaper in the state editorialised in support of the Bill, and even a major conservative columnist, George Will, wrote a column supporting it. The Californian Medical Association had removed its opposition to assisted suicide in the Spring, despite the continued concerns and vocal unhappiness of many doctors.
Consequently, the most populous state in America – California has a population of almost 40 million people – may soon have assisted suicide. This could have serious consequences for vulnerable people. Like the Marris Bill, ABX2-15 is modelled on the assisted suicide law in Oregon, but pays lip-service to public safety by trying to attempt safeguards to prevent abuse. One such safeguard requires the patient to meet alone with their doctor so that he or she may discern whether they are under undue influence. This however, does not guarantee the patient’s safety, particularly under the U.S. healthcare system.
If the doctor has an interest in seeing the patient gone for example, a distinct possibility given American litigation culture (e.g. if the doctor had botched the patient’s care and wanted to eliminate the liability by eliminating the patient), then they might very well be the source of undue pressure. Even if the doctor is benign, as in the Marris Bill no detail is given that would enable pressure to be detected by this one doctor (one fewer than Marris or Lord Falconer suggested). The Bill also relies on doctors being sanctioned by licensing boards, which are notoriously bad in policing themselves, and even gives ‘blanket immunity’ to healthcare providers even when their actions are grossly negligent. Given all this, the Bill hardly provides real and proper protections for patients.
Whether this dangerous Bill becomes law now depends on whether Governor Brown will sign or veto the Bill. Governors are essentially the Executive Heads of individual States, combining the office of Head of State and Prime Minister, much like the U.S. President. As with the President, Governors have the power to veto legislation, in an original emulation of the power of the British Monarch (who now no longer exercises that prerogative). Consequently, though the legislature has passed the Bill, Brown could conceivably reject it.
In order to secure a rejection, the American College of Physicians sent a letter to Brown, asking him to veto. Disability organisations, right-to-life groups, and others are also calling upon him to do so. It is to be hoped that he listens to these voices and chooses to safeguard the citizens of his state. UK right-to-lifers can call on him to do so by signing this petition.
Whatever happens, right-to-lifers must note how quick and effective the assisted death lobby can be in achieving its goals. We must be no less professional and efficacious in our mission to mobilise legislators, medical professionals, and public opinion to oppose assisted suicide, and affirm a culture of life in end of life care.