Assisted-suicide bill approved by California Assembly

By Sharon Bernstein SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - A hard-fought measure to allow physician-assisted suicide in California passed the state Assembly on Wednesday despite opposition from religious groups and advocates for the disabled, moving to the state Senate where it is widely expected to pass. The measure, which would allow doctors to prescribe medication to some terminally ill patients to end their lives if taken, passed 43-34 after weeks of hearings and passionate debate. "Imagine that it's one of your constituents, suffering in agonizing pain - their pain medication no longer works," said Assembly member Luis Alejo, a Democrat from Watsonville who supported the bill. "Then imagine that it's your father or your mother or your grandparents or your daughter." Under the bill, which was pulled for lack of support in July but reintroduced last month as part of a special legislative session to deal with healthcare issues, two doctors would have to attest that a patient had only six months to live before the medication could be prescribed. The bill makes it a felony to coerce or trick someone into taking the medication, or to force it on someone. Patients who are not mentally competent would not be allowed to receive a prescription. Assisted suicide is legal in Oregon, Washington state, Montana and Vermont, although supporters have tried numerous times to legalize it in California without success. The issue rose to prominence in the most populous U.S. state last year after a terminally ill 29-year-old cancer patient, Brittany Maynard, moved from California to Oregon to take advance of that state's law. A measure introduced after Maynard's death won the support of the state Senate in June, but died in the assembly Health Committee, amid opposition from the Catholic Church, disability rights advocates and others. Supporters re-introduced it during a special session on healthcare called by California Governor Jerry Brown, with the assembly's health committee comprised of members generally more sympathetic to the bill. It now goes back to the Senate, where it is expected to pass. The legislature is required to pass regular session bills by midnight on Friday, although lawmakers may opt to stay longer to handle special session measures. Brown, who was a Jesuit seminary student before entering politics, has not taken a position on the legislation. Polls show consistent support for such a measure in California, and in May, the California Medical Association changed its longstanding opposition to a neutral stance. (Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Additional reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Bill Trott and Sandra Maler)