Calif. Debates Assisted Suicide

Col. Russell Williams is shown in this image from video provided by Ontario Provincial Court, from his interrogation by police shown Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2010 in a Belleville, Ont. courtroom.
AP Photo

For years, Oregon has been the only state where doctor-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients is legal. And President George W. Bush wants the Supreme Court to outlaw it there.

But now, California has taken the first steps toward allowing assisted suicide there — a move that's sure to raise the political stakes nationwide.

CBS News Correspondent Bill Whitaker

that the assisted suicide bill sailed through a legislative committee today, setting the stage for a heated statewide debate.

Polly Crouch is losing her battle with lung cancer. But as she declines, she doesn't want to lose control.

Should the pain and debility become unbearable, she wants to say when to end her life.

"The doctor said this type of cancer was particularly lethal and could metastasize to other parts of your body, sometimes to your brain," Crouch said. "That really scares me. I don't want to live with no brainpower. I've always been in control of my life; I'd also like to be in control of my death.

The bill working its way through the California legislature would give her that right. Modeled on Oregon's eight-year-old assisted suicide law, the California bill would allow doctors to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients.

State assembly member Patty Berg is one of the sponsors.

"Californians want this right," Berg said. "And whether of not there's the political will or the political courage to make it a right is yet to be seen."

Backers say the California bill has even more stringent safeguards than Oregon's — to protect people who are depressed and requiring physicians to inform patients in writing of all other alternatives.

Another big difference? California is a much more raucous and diverse state ... and so are the voices of opposition.

Not only the Catholic Church, but advocates for the disabled which call it a ploy for insurance companies and HMOs to get rid of the sickest, costliest clients ... community groups say blacks and Latinos get second rate health care from birth.

"Then we're also most likely to fall prey to an assisted suicide bill where people will feel forced to end our lives so we don't become a burden to our families, our loved ones, or a medical system that's already overburdened with the uninsured," said Angel Luevano, Director of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

To Polly Crouch the debate is deeply personal. She says it shouldn't be about politics, but individual freedom.

"I'm not asking for control over anyone else's death; only my own," Crouch said. "We plan our lives, why not plan our deaths?"

Californians are finding that simple question has no easy answer.