More than 50 advocates of a state bill dubbed the “End of Life Option” assembled outside the downtown Santa Barbara offices of Assemblymember Das Williams Friday morning, demanding that Williams — as yet undeclared on the politically polarized measure — cast his ballot in the affirmative. The bill, which gives terminally ill patients who’ve been given six months or less to live the ability to end their own lives, is scheduled for a vote during this week’s special legislative session, and by any reckoning the outcome remains extremely uncertain.
Most of the activists thronging Williams’s office wore yellow campaign T-shirts bearing the words, “Compassion & Choices,” the name of the sponsoring organization mobilizing Friday’s action. Most were above the age of 60, and when asked how many were constituents of Williams’s, about half raised their hands. Williams was not present at the event, but afterward, a number of the advocates reportedly met with his staff. According to Williams’s spokesperson Lourdes Jimenez, the assemblymember has expressed concerns the legislation does not adequately address the pain threshold at which patients should be able to avail themselves to the final option. She also noted that doctors had given Williams’s own grandfather six months to live after a cancer diagnosis five years ago — but that he remains alive today. Williams, Lourdes explained, expressed concern family members could be unduly denied the companionship of their loved ones if the bill were passed as initially proposed. To date, however, the bill has not come before Williams for a vote.
An older man — balding, bespectacled, and slightly hunched of back — told the assembled supporters that he’d been diagnosed many years ago with multiple myeloma, a slow-moving form of cancer that’s incurable and often inflicts excruciating pain. The core issue, he said, was that of choice. His medical symptoms, he said, are currently under control, but should they flare up again, he has no confidence the arsenal of drugs used to combat pain are up to the task. “I’ve known the pain that cancer causes,” he said. “And sometimes they can’t control it.”
A former family practice doctor from Santa Ana named Robert Olvera — dressed in a white lab coat — recounted the excruciating death of his 25-year-old daughter, Emily, who died in April from leukemia that had spread to her brain. Emily, he said, waged a 17-year battle with cancer, after initially being told she had eight months to live. In the past four months of her life, Olvera said his daughter had a stroke that rendered her blind and incapable of walking. The fluids secreted by the tumor caused her head to swell. Those fluids were removed and cancer fighting fluids injected, all of which caused his daughter great pain. “She decided she wanted to die,” he declared. Although Olvera was a practicing physician, he said he was unaware five states had passed laws allowing assisted suicide. “Had I known this, we would have been gone,” he said. As it was, Emily chose to end her own life by refusing any nourishment and water. After seven to 10 days, he said, Emily died from a combination of starvation and renal failure. “This is something no father should ever have to go through.”
The California Legislature has been wrestling with various right-to-die measures since the 1990s; on the two occasions the matter went to a vote, it was defeated. This year, the State Senate approved a similar measure — SB 128, introduced by senators Lois Wolk and Bill Monning — by a party-line vote of 23-15. Recent polling indicates the idea has widespread support — 70 percent — and for the first time ever, the California Medical Association opted not to oppose the proposal, as it has in the past. When the bill was submitted to the Assembly Health Committee, it was vigorously opposed by the Roman Catholic Church and advocates for handicap rights, who argued insurance companies and health-care providers would promote assisted suicide as a medical alternative to those facing chronic and expensive medical treatment. When it was clear the votes weren’t there to pass the bill out of committee, its sponsors withdrew the bill from consideration rather than have it go to a vote. When Governor Jerry Brown subsequently opted to hold a special legislative session — beginning this week — to discuss multi billion-dollar matters involving health care and transportation, Wolk and Monning shoe-horned the right-to-die bill into the deliberations. Governor Brown has not been shy about expressing his annoyance that they did so. (The bill has a new number of the special session — ABX215.)
Bill supporters insist they’ve included numerous safeguards to ensure patients are not quietly coerced into ending their own lives. Those seeking a physician’s prescription for a life-ending drug must be 18, a resident of the state, and of sound mind. They must make two oral requests at least 15 days apart, and they must have been diagnosed with an incurable disease and given six months or less to live. Written requests must also be submitted and in the presence of two witnesses. Only one of those witnesses can be related by blood, marriage, or adoption. At any time along the way, patients can change their mind. And it will be up to them to administer the drugs to themselves. No physicians will be required to assist if it violates their moral beliefs. Any acts of coercion will prosecuted as felonies.
The bill has been endorsed by both the Santa Barbara City Council and the County Board of Supervisors. The Santa Barbara District Attorney could be the only district attorney in the state to sign on. In 2008, the DA’s Office prosecuted an elderly man who attempted a mercy-killing murder-suicide with his mentally incapacitated wife by fumigating his home with carbon monoxide. He did not succeed and was given probation. The office is currently prosecuting the mother of a middle-aged woman stricken with advanced ALS (Lou Gehrig’s diesase) and her daughter’s caregiver for murder after the two allegedly conspired to shut off the woman’s oxygen flow. Prosecutors insist this is not a mercy-killing case and note it was the County Grand Jury that rendered the indictments against the two.
For Williams — an evangelical Christian as well as a political progressive on environmental and social justice issues — the controversy puts him at odds with some of his longtime supporters. The bill has been endorsed by the Santa Barbara Democratic Party and the Democratic Women of Santa Barbara County. Carrying a sign reading “Where’s the Compassion Das Williams?” was Marian Shapiro, an activist with both the Democratic Women of Santa Barbara County and the Democratic Service Club. Shapiro said she met privately with Williams several weeks ago to discuss the matter and recalled, “He said, ‘I wish this was more about compassion and less about choice.’ He said, ‘I don’t think it’s our choice when we die. It’s God’s choice or the universe’s choice or whatever you believe in.’ He said, ‘I think my constituents would want me to vote my conscience.’”
Shapiro did not agree. Her sign read, “Your conscience does not trump our rights to have end of life options.”
Williams spokesperson Jimenez suggested that Williams’s conversation with Shapiro was of a personal and philosophical nature, and she expressed concern his remarks may have been taken “out of context.” She stressed that Williams’s only official communications on the matter related to issues of pain thresholds and the fallibility of medical professionals in rendering opinions about how much time patients might have left.
Typically, protests of this size are exceptionally rare in front of Santa Barbara’s Assembly offices. State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson recalled when she still served in the Assembly, she was on the receiving end of a similar protest, but by those taking vocal exception to her support for a right-to-die bill then under deliberation. At that rally, Jackson recalled, people carried signs calling her “Hannah-Death Kevorkian,” referring to the famous physician — popularly known as “Dr. Death” — jailed in 1999 for assisting terminally ill patients seeking suicide. Jackson said she’s been a strong supporter of death-with-dignity bills since the 1990s and stressed that she’s a principal cosponsor of the bill now under deliberation. She and Williams, she said, had not discussed the measure “extensively,” adding, “He has religious concerns.”
Jackson was not optimistic that any amendments could be written that would address the concerns of those with religion-based opposition. “We tried to find a compromise years ago, but we found there are people who for religious reasons are opposed to anyone making these end-of-life decisions other than God.” Should the bill fail during the special legislative committee, Jackson all but predicted supporters would soon begin collecting signatures to qualify the issue for a statewide ballot. That, she said, would be unfortunate. “Lots of times with initiatives, there are unintended consequences, and you don’t always get what you think you’re getting.”