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Religious and Regulatory Concerns Block Vote on California Right-to-Die Law

California's legislature has once again put off voting on a bill that would grant terminally ill people the ability to die more quickly with the help of a lethal prescription drug.

by Liz Fields
Jul 7 2015, 8:10pm

A photo of Brittany Maynard sits on the dias of the Senate Health Committee, at the Capitol in Sacramento, California, Wednesday March 25, 2015. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli/AP

California's legislature has once again put off voting on a bill that would grant terminally ill people — those who have less than six months to live — the ability to die more quickly with the help of a prescription lethal drug.

Earlier this month SB 128, known as the End of Life Option Act, was approved by the California state Senate, where it passed 23 to 14, despite opposition from Republicans. But on Tuesday it was denied debate in the state Assembly's Health Committee because of hesitation from members concerned over the lack of safeguards in the process, as well as cultural and religious pressure from constituents.

"We continue to work with Assembly members to ensure they are comfortable with the bill," Democratic Senators Bill Monning and Lois Wolk, and Assemblywoman Susan Eggman said in a joint statement. "We remain committed to passing the End of Life Option Act for all Californians who want and need the option of medical aid in dying."

Debate before the 19-member committee had already been postponed in June after failing to muster enough enthusiasm from Democrats. A spokesman for Eggman told the Associated Press that opposition to the bill meant it could not meet the deadline to pass committees this year.

The issue has caused a split between lawmakers from largely white, affluent, and liberal bastions, and their colleagues representing Latino Catholic areas, where the archdiocese has vehemently opposed the bill. Similar legislation in 2007 was also stifled by religious opposition.

Related: The World Should Follow Belgium's Lead In Granting Prisoners the Right to Die

Efforts to pass right-to-die bills have also been blocked in New Jersey, Maine, Colorado, and several other states this year. Currently only four states — Washington, Vermont, Montana, and Oregon — have passed laws allowing physician-assisted death.

The legislation in California was inspired in part by Brittany Maynard, a 29-year old Bay Area woman with terminal brain cancer, who moved to Oregon to legally end her life in November last year.

Oregon was the first state to introduce its Death with Dignity Act (DWDA) in 1997, allowing doctors to prescribe a life-ending drug to a terminally ill person. The patient must be of "sound mind" and must self-administer the drug, unassisted.

Since then, at least 1,327 people in the state have had DWDA prescriptions written and some 859 patients have died from ingesting those medications, according to the Oregon public health statistics.

Some chose not to take the drug, while others died of their illness before they could swallow the medicine. The death status of others is unknown, and a small number — less than 1 percent — regained consciousness after taking the drug. Most patients are between 55 and 84-years old, well educated, and had cancer.

After Maynard's death, her family continued to lobby alongside voluntary euthanasia advocates for similar legislation in California.

"Brittany would be very proud to see the monumental shift occurring on the End of Life Option legislation," Maynard's husband, Dan Diaz, said in a statement after the Senate vote on the bill.

Related: Right-to-Die Advocate Brittany Maynard Took Her Life This Weekend

But the bill has been met with opposition from social conservatives and religious groups, including the Catholic Church, which has claimed it goes against the laws of natural death and is tantamount to assisted suicide. Pope Francis has spoken about his opposition to euthanasia, saying it is an act that engenders a "false sense of compassion."

Some concerns from legislators centered more on the procedure itself and provisions for misuse and abuse, including lack of proper patient safeguards in the bill such as mandatory health evaluations before the fatal drugs are given to the patient.

"It's not a religious thing for me. It's how this is going to be implemented in the real world," Democratic Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez said Monday ahead of the vote. "It's a matter of life and death, and we have to make sure we get this bill right."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Watch the VICE News documentary, "California's Sea Lion Die-Off."