Archive for 2015

Why “Right-to-Die” Is 2016’s Most Consequential Bill

Friday, March 20th, 2015

Zellerbach20150104_20150102It’s noteworthy, but not surprising, that Dianne Feinstein’s big-deal endorsement of California’s right-to-die legislation comes only a few months after the arduous death of her close and lifelong friend, Merla Zellerbach.

Feinstein’s support for the bill, scheduled for its first committee hearing next week, came in a letter released by its sponsors on Tuesday, a significant development widely ignored by the MSM press corps, except for the Media News Group’s ever-alert Josh Richman.

“The right to die with dignity is an option that should be available for every chronically suffering terminally ill consenting adult in California,” DiFi wrote. “I share your concern that terminally ill California residents currently do not have the option to obtain end-of-life medication if their suffering becomes unbearable.”

Hailed correctly by chief sponsor Sen. Lois Wolk, a Davis Democrat, as a “big boost” for the awkwardly titled “End of Life Option Act”, Feinstein’s public imprimatur was first signaled in January, when she spoke at Temple Emanu-El services for Zellerbach, a prominent S.F. writer, civic leader and philanthropist .

“Those of us that make laws in this country have to give a lot of thought to how people die,” she said then.

leahExhibit A: In moving detail, Chronicle columnist Leah Garchik described the decline and death from pancreatic cancer of the 84-year old Zellerbach, a must-read piece published in January. It should serve as Exhibit A for the case in favor of a California “death with dignity” law, as it is known in Oregon.

Zellerbach was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer last summer. After mulling the decision, the advanced stage of her disease, her age and her awful reaction to pre-chemotherapy medication, together convinced her not to endure further treatment. She was sure of her choice:

“It’s not suicide,” she said by phone. “For one thing, suicide patients have a choice. They can go on living.” In a situation like hers, however, patients “do not have a choice. They’re going to die. … And you’re not doing it to yourself. God or whoever she is has made the choice that you can’t go on living.”

Over the next months, Zellerbach spoke and met frequently with Garchik about what was happening to her as the disease advanced; their agreement was that Leah would not publish anything until Merla had died.

Years before her cancer, Zellerbach became active in a non-profit group called Compassion and Choices, which seeks to help dying people manage their suffering. The organization wants to add California to the small list of states – Oregon, Montana, New Mexico, Vermont and Washington – that have death-with-dignity statutes.

Tended to by doctors, friends, family, caregivers, hospice workers and a team from Compassion and Choices, Merla knew no one could stop the cancer that would kill her. But she thought she could be in control. She was wrong.

Zellerbach’s end-of-life reflections and commentary provide a vivid picture of the kinds of circumstance that should allow the dying the freedom to lift their suffering:

“I have lost my faith in that it would be some kind of fairy-tale thing, that you pop in a pill and it is done,” she said 11 days before the end, which came Dec. 26. “Doctors have it hammered into their heads to do no harm. But it’s pretty harmful to let people suffer.”

At one point, she recalled the words of her rabbi father about his own laborious, punishing death:

In 1975, Merla’s father, a rabbi, had died of pancreatic cancer, in great pain. “I asked him if he still believed in God. He replied, ‘All I ever asked for from God was a merciful death, and I don’t understand why I’m not getting it.’”

Lois Wolk. (Courtesy photo)What’s in the bill: Oregon’s death-with-dignity law has been in effect for 17 years, with “no reported cases of abuse,” according to sponsors of the California bill; 155 people with end of life diagnoses used its self-empowering authority last year.

Wolk’s bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel and Assembly member Susan Talamantes Eggman, D-Stockton, will be debated in the Legislature as at least 15 other states, and the District of Columbia, consider similar legislation. The national death with dignity movement has been spurred by the case of Brittany Maynard, who captured national attention last year when she moved from the Bay Area to Oregon to die, after being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor.

Despite what opponents surely will argue, the California proposal is crafted to avoid easily abused Kevorkian-style self-suicides, a California Healthline summary of the bill makes clear:

The End of Life Options Act… would give patients with terminal illnesses the right to seek life-ending medication from their doctor. Specifically, the bill would require that:

The medication is self-administered;

The patient is mentally competent;

Two physicians confirm the prognosis that the patient has six months or less to live;

The patient’s physician discusses alternatives and additional treatment option;

The patient submits a written request and two oral requests made at least 15 days apart;

Two witnesses attest to the request.

In addition, the bill would require an interpreter for non-English speakers.

Bottom line: George Skelton recently broke down the legislative politics of the measure, calling it “potentially the most emotional issue” of the session, and reporting that its chances of passing the senate were more favorable than in the Assembly, “where many Latinos represent heavily Catholic constituencies and are leery because of church opposition.”

We’re with George on the bottom line:

Many terminally ill patients fear dying slowly in pain. They’d like to cut short the agony. But some with disabilities worry about being pressured into suicide. Still others believe their god insists they die naturally even if suffering.

Me, I’d like to make my own decision, thank you. No government or religion telling me what I can or cannot do with my own body.

The Senate Health Committee will take up SB128 on Wednesday.

Dianne_Our_Full_Time_SupervisorThe Dianne and Merla show: As loyal readers know, Feinstein’s personal experiences often shape her stances on policy matters, from her views on gun control to the shift she made years ago on the death penalty. Whether or not her 50-year friendship with Zellerbach was determinative in her decision to take a high-profile position on the aid-in-dying bill, there is no denying the closeness of their friendship.

Zellerbach and her late husband were big supporters, personally, politically and financially, starting with Feinstein’s  first campaign, when she won as a big long shot for supervisor.

The couple was among a small group Feinstein assembled to make a covert visit to a downtown porno theater, following which she launched a high-profile campaign against the smut industry that made her a top-rank celebrity politician in San Francisco. Zellerbach, then a Chronicle columnist herself, backed the play with a piece that described Feinstein’s undercover visit:

What we found was total degradation of the human spirit, a terrifying look into the darkest recesses of the sick mind.

Two years later, Feinstein launched a first, ill-fated, campaign for mayor; it is perhaps most notable because during it, she became one of the first politicians anywhere to actively court the gay community. During that race, DiFi had a scheduling conflict, and so asked Zellerbach and her husband, Fred Goerner, to stand in for her at an important event:

At one point Merla Zellerbach and Fred Goerner were dispatched to represent her at a transvestite ball, where an annual “Empress of San Francisco” contest was held. The two were paraded down a runway and received an enthusiastic response (‘”Fred got asked to dance,” his wife recalled) in recognition of the respect that Feinstein was showing the gay community.”

RIP, Merla.

Update 3-25-15: The right-to-die bill passed its first test, after sometimes emotional testimony, when the state Senate Health Committee approved it 6-to-2. It now goes to the senate Judiciary Committee.

Kamala’s First Senate Foe: Rocky Chavez on Issues

Monday, March 16th, 2015

rockyNow that Republican Assemblyman Rocky (his actual name — we asked) Chavez of Oceanside has officially joined the race for U.S. Senate from California, becoming Democratic Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris’s No. 1 and, so far, only opponent, Calbuzz spent some time the other day chatting with him about actual, you know, issues. Our motto: We do this so you don’t have to.

Turns out that while Chavez, 63, is at odds with the mainstream of California political sentiment on some key issues – abortion rights, health care, minimum wage, offshore oil drilling, for example — he is more thoughtful and not nearly as rabid nor strident as your hardcore, right-wing, Tea Party type Republicans. Talking issues with Rocky Balboa, you have to admire his openness and easy candor.

Pro-Cuomo on Abortion: Take abortion rights, for example, a position overwhelmingly favored by California voters. As a practicing Catholic, Chavez is pro-life. Importantly, however, he says he would not support an attempt to overturn Roe v Wade’s protection of a woman’s right to choose because “that’s been settled in the courts.” Nor, he said, would he vote for measures to further restrict abortion rights, like requiring parental consent for minors.

And it infuriates him when people from the anti-abortion right wing accuse him of being a “weak Catholic.” Basically, his position is similar to the one laid out at Notre Dame in September 1984 by former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.

cuomoHere’s what the late great Cuomo said, in part:

The Catholic who holds political office in a pluralistic democracy — who is elected to serve Jews and Muslims, atheists and Protestants, as well as Catholics — bears special responsibility. He or she undertakes to help create conditions under which all can live with a maximum of dignity and with a reasonable degree of freedom; where everyone who chooses may hold beliefs different from specifically Catholic ones — sometimes contradictory to them; where the laws protect people’s right to divorce, to use birth control and even to choose abortion.

That’s pretty much the position Gov. Jerry Brown also holds on the issue. So Rocky’s in good company.

For the record, he believes the big choice vs. life issue in California is not abortion, but assisted suicide and he’s absolutely opposed to allowing it. “I’m not going to vote for anything that doesn’t see the sanctity of life,” he said. It’s a personal issue for him. His 37-year-old son was diagnosed and hospitalized with schizophrenia years ago and at a point of unbearable misery wanted his father to help him end his life – a plea Chavez said he refused. He son is doing well today, he added.

obama_doctorWould Allow Obamacare to Crash While the Field Poll says California voters favor the Affordable Health Care Act by a margin of 56-35%, Chavez says he would “vote to change Obamacare because it doesn’t work.” (This is not what you might call an actual fact, but it is his belief.)

We’re spending a lot of money processing insurance, he argues. “It would have been cheaper to buy everybody a Blue Cross policy.”

Given the chance, he’d vote in the Senate to eliminate the individual mandate that requires people to have health insurance. He acknowledged that if the individual mandate is eliminated, the health care system as now constructed in California would collapse, but is willing for that to happen to eliminate what he believes is a terrible public policy.

Minimum Wage Chavez told us he’s opposed to increasing the minimum wage – another position that many California voters may not like much. His reason: he believes it freezes many teenagers out of the employment  market. “I don’t think the issue is minimum wage…I think it prevents kids from having a job,” he said, recalling his own first jobs “clean(ing) toilets and bus(ing) tables.”

Offshore Oil.  He said he would vote for renewed offshore oil drilling in federal waters “if it meets all the requirements for science and safety of the Department of Conservation, Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources.”

Fighting ISIS. As for fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), he’d vote to give President Obama whatever powers he needs. He said he believes Obama’s foreign policy is “a total disaster in the Middle East.” But would not have signed the letter that 47 Republican senators recently sent to Iran seeking to undermine Obama’s negotiations to halt Iran’s nuclear program.

“Partisanship ends at our borders,” he said. “He is the Commander in Chief,” he added, sounding very much like the retired Marine colonel that he is.

abetterlife2Pathway to Something.  On immigration, Chavez offers a position much closer to the California mainstream than most Republican politicians – a pathway to legal residency. It’s not a pathway to citizenship, but a compromise position, that might not be as expansive as most Latino voters would prefer, but a lot less off-putting than the round-‘em-up-and-send-‘em-home stand so popular within the GOP.

Chavez says he approaches the issue using three principles:

1) Family – “The Republican Party has always valued marriage and children,” he said, “but we’re sending mothers and fathers away from their kids. That’s not good.”

2) Security – He wants better security at the border, but that shouldn’t be the first thing out of a Republican candidate’s mouth, he said. That just causes Latino voters to shut down. “They say, ‘Why would I vote for you if I felt you’d never want me over for dinner?’”

3) Citizenship: No – We have laws governing how people become citizens (which he’s still researching, he said) but he favors “what I call residency,” with which immigrants could register, get a driver’s license, pay taxes and follow procedures to obtain their citizenship over time.

Unlike a lot of politicians, Chavez — Chico State and USMC — is refreshingly straight-forward. He’s not the most articulate candidate we’ve encountered, be he’s a bright guy who’s willing to risk a seat in the California Assembly to give Queen Kamala a challenge.

In his big underdog willingness to take on a candidate who’s backed by California’s powerful Democratic establishment and Washington’s liberal elite, we’re reminded of the words of another Rocky, namely the underdog  boxer played by Sylvester Stallone in “Rocky.”

The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows… You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward. How much you can take, and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.

 PS. After our post about the California Republican Party Convention, at which our attempt to interview Rocky was interrupted by a junior woodchuck press aide, one Captain Mr. Chistopher Pickard, we received a heartfelt apology and help setting up a phone conversation with the assemblyman. Calbuzz appreciates his apology and  good grace.