March 26, 2015 / 12:35 AM / 5 years ago

California bill that would allow assisted suicide passes Senate panel

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - Physician-assisted suicide would be legal for terminally ill patients in California under a bill passed on Wednesday by a committee of the state Senate.

The bill, passed by the Senate Health Committee, would allow patients who are mentally competent and have fewer than six months to live to obtain prescriptions for medication to end their lives.

“This end-of-life decision should remain with the individual, as a matter of personal freedom and liberty without criminalize those who help to honor our wishes,” said state Senator Lois Wolk, a Democrat representing suburbs east of San Francisco and the state’s wine country and one of the bill’s authors.

The California bill is moving through the legislature at a time when the issue of assisted suicide has sparked public attention following the death of brain cancer patient Brittany Maynard last fall.

Maynard, who was diagnosed with brain cancer at 29, moved from California to Oregon, where physician assisted suicide is legal, dying there because California forbids the practice.

Before she died, Maynard recorded testimony in favor of passing such a law in California, which was played for the committee on Wednesday.

“I am heartbroken that I had to leave behind my home, my community, and my friends in California, but I am dying and I refuse to lose my dignity,” Maynard said. “I refuse to subject myself and my family to purposeless, prolonged pain and suffering at the hands of an incurable disease.”

The bill is opposed by disability rights activists, who fear it would lead to the deaths of vulnerable people at the hands of unscrupulous relatives or caregivers.

They also fear insurance companies will push assisted suicide for those whose care is expensive.

“I’ve been given a terminal diagnosis at least four times,” said Laurie Hoirup, 59, who uses a wheelchair. “Had I opted for this I would not be alive today.”

Several religious groups also oppose the bill.

If it passes, California would become one of a handful of U.S. states that allow assisted suicide, including Oregon and Washington. Last month, the Supreme Court of Canada cleared the way for physician-assisted suicide there. Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland are among countries that allow it.

The California bill won the five votes needed to pass the Health Committee, but members did not declare a final tally as absent senators planned to weigh in later on Wednesday.

Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Eric Beech

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