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California's Legislature Debates Bill To Legalize Physician-Assisted Suicide


A controversial bill that would legalize physician-assisted suicide in California was passed by the state legislature today. If Governor Jerry Brown signs it, that state would be the fifth in the country to allow doctors to prescribe lethal medication to terminally ill patients who request it. Reporter April Dembosky at KQED in San Francisco has been following this debate all year. And April, help us understand the details here. What exactly would the bill allow if it becomes law?

APRIL DEMBOSKY, BYLINE: The bill is intended for patients who have six months or less to live. And the idea is really for patients who are very near death - maybe weeks away - whose suffering has become unbearable or intolerable. They could ask their doctor for drugs that would end their lives. But there are a lot of rules around it.

So first of all, patients have to be physically able to swallow the drugs themselves. And also, they have to be mentally capable of making medical decisions. So this is not something for Alzheimer's patients. It's not something for people who suffer from severe depression.

CORNISH: And this bill has actually failed a few times this year. What's changed?

DEMBOSKY: Right. So the proponents were able to get this through in a special legislative session. So during the regular legislative session, they hit a roadblock in the Assembly Health Committee. They didn't have enough votes to get it through. But then, the governor called a special session to discuss health care financing, and that's the way they were able to reintroduce this bill. And the makeups of the committees were different, so they were able to get it through this time.

CORNISH: What are the concerns that opponents have to this bill?

DEMBOSKY: Most of the opposition has come from religious groups who say only God can decide, you know, when a person's life is going to end and also from disability rights groups. They're particularly concerned about the potential for abuse and coercion. So say a person who's concerned about being a financial burden on their family - they're afraid that they will either choose or be pressured into taking these life-ending drugs instead of pursuing, say, more expensive life-sustaining treatments.

CORNISH: So how would the legislation address that?

DEMBOSKY: Well, there are number of protections that have been added over the last couple of months of debate in order to sway opponents. For example, the bill makes it a felony for a health insurance company, for example, who may want to deny treatment or coverage based on whether a patient seeks these drugs or not. Patients also have to ask for the drugs three times before they can get them, once in writing in front of two witnesses.

CORNISH: And we mentioned Governor Jerry Brown. Is there any sense about what he might do?

DEMBOSKY: You know, we really don't know. We know that the office was not very happy with the political pathway. They didn't think this was the appropriate - that this special session was the appropriate venue to discuss this issue. But that being said, Governor Brown has not indicated where he stands on the issue itself, whether or not he's going to sign or veto it. We do know if he does nothing in 30 days, the bill will become law.

CORNISH: That's April Dembosky with member station KQED in San Francisco. She comes to us as part of a partnership with Kaiser Health News. April, thank you.

DEMBOSKY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

April Dembosky is the health reporter for The California Report and KQED News. She covers health policy and public health, and has reported extensively on the economics of health care, the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act in California, mental health and end-of-life issues. Her work is regularly rebroadcast on NPR and has been recognized with awards from the Society for Professional Journalists (for sports reporting), and the Association of Health Care Journalists (for a story about pediatric hospice). Her hour-long radio documentary about home funeralswon the Best New Artist award from the Third Coast International Audio Festival in 2009. April occasionally moonlights on the arts beat, covering music and dance. Her story about the first symphony orchestra at Burning Man won the award for Best Use of Sound from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. Before joining KQED in 2013, April covered technology and Silicon Valley for The Financial Times, and freelanced for Marketplace and The New York Times. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Smith College.