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California's End of Life Option Act Moves Forward

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Advocates for the End of Life Option Act are optimistic it will become law in the state of California soon. | Photo: Jeremy Brooks/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Many patient rights organizations are optimistic that the End of Life Option Act, SB 128, is one step closer to becoming law this legislative session after passing hurdles in the State Senate's Health, Judiciary, and Appropriations committees.

The bill was last placed in a "suspense file" to determine the cost impact the bill would have on the state's general fund. If approved, the bill is expected to reach the Senate floor the first week of June.

SB 128 would allow physicians to prescribe lethal doses to terminally ill patients to alleviate pain and suffering during the final days of their life. Aid in dying is currently legal in Oregon, Washington, and Vermont. Courts have also ruled in favor in Montana and New Mexico.

The issue of end-of-life options for terminally ill Californians gained national attention after 29-year-old Brittany Maynard decided to end her life by using Oregon's Death with Dignity law, which has been legal since 1994.

California voters support the aid in dying option by more than a 2 to 1 margin, according to Compassion & Choices, a group advocating for the bill's passing.

"Californians now support such a law by an overwhelming majority and their elected representatives agree with them," George Eighmey, vice president at the Death with Dignity National Center, told KCET via email.

Eighmey -- previously an Oregon state legislator who played a key role in protecting Oregon's 1994 voter passed initiative -- says Californians have long been attempting to pass a similar law since 1991. The last attempt to do so was in 2007 through a legislative process, he said.

Death with Dignity National Center has worked to pass death with dignity laws in states like New York and Hawaii, and is confident the bill will be passed by the Senate by its June 5 deadline. Once it reaches the Senate, the bill will then be transferred to the California Assembly and various committees.

In January 2015, California Senators William Monning and Lois Wolk, together with the Death with Dignity National Center, worked to introduce SB 128 -- mirrored off Oregon's death with dignity law. The goal was to best serve terminally ill Californians so that they wouldn't have to move to another state to take advantage of end-of-life options.

"Death with Dignity National Center supports the bill because, like in Oregon, it will provide comfort and ease of mind to thousands of terminally ill Californians knowing they will have one more option to relieve their suffering," said Eighmey.

Current options for terminally ill patients include continuing or discontinuing treatment, enrolling in a hospice, or receiving palliative care.

Some opponents of SB 128 include individuals who have religious objections toward using medical aid in dying and some members and advocates from the disability community.

Toni Broaddus, California campaign director for Compassion & Choices, says Oregon's law has worked for nearly 20 years, without any reports of abuse or coercion under the Death with Dignity statute.

"We encourage families to talk to their clergy and consider their own values and what kind of death they want in making the decisions they need to make at the end of life," Broaddus told KCET via phone. "This is a bill whose time has come. We feel people are talking more and more about death and the options at the end of their lives and what they want their death to be, so it's a really important issue that is the topic of significant public discussion and debate."

KCET's "SoCal Connected" looked into end of life options with an in-depth segment. Watch it here.

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