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Support for End of Life Option Act lower among African Americans, poll finds

on October 6, 2015

Governor Jerry Brown’s signature on a new state law signed into effect on Monday enables doctors to render aid in dying to the terminally ill, but a recent poll by the Institute of Governmental Studies disclosed divergent views between the African American community and other ethnic groups.

African Americans endorsed the end-of-life option by 52 percent, a much slimmer margin than the 75 percent support voiced by other Californians. Interviews with Oakland residents suggest religion, culture and social traditions may play a role in the split.

The new law, formerly known as SB 128, would allow terminally ill patients with less than six months to live to request a prescription from their primary healthcare provider for a pill that would end their lives. The bill was introduced by state senators Lois Wolk (D-Davis) and Bill Monning (D-Carmel).

“The suicide assistance bill … [I]t’s a difficult decision for people to make, and so you can’t make one law that fits all,” said Father Kwame Assenyoh, of Oakland’s St. Columba Catholic Church. He had asked parishioners to send cards to Brown asking him to veto the bill.

Other Oaklanders suggested generational attitudes may lie behind the split. “If you’re looking at some of the older African American population, many of them are under the same mindset, that this is all a natural process. There [could be] divine intervention. There is no taking of your own life,” said Oaklander Karen Permillion. She said that these were some of the attitudes “old folks” passed on to her while she was growing up. “I think it’s just something about that age demographic. I think they’ve gone through so much, and they’ve just learned how to hang on and keep on going. I think that’s probably why they figure it’s all in God’s hands.”

Former Black Panther and long-time East Bay resident Roger Yarborough and his son discussed the bill’s lack of support, mentioning a deeply ingrained suspicion of the government. “I guess with black people, they’re skeptical,” he said. “There’s so many things that we voted for that we never got.”

Yarborough’s son, Emiliano, suggested that some in the community feel that “certain stuff, people of color do not do.” Some African American people, he said hold the view that “only white people commit suicide.”

“Right! Dr. Kevorkian,” his father added.

“But it’s not a colored thing; every race does it,” Emiliano continued.

Permillion, who trained as a nurse and now works in healthcare, agreed. “For a long time, African American people just didn’t think that African Americans committed suicide, although it was there,” she said. “We’ve never seen ourselves as having to run to a psychologist to help us deal with our family issues. We haven’t seen ourselves as members of the community that find things so overwhelming that it would cause us to want to take our lives.”

She said she believes that this stigma against suicide within the African American community could be another possible reason for the lack of support for the bill.

The IGS poll examined a representative cross-section of 1,097 Californians and was taken in late August. The study was published in September. It was executed by the traditionally market research-focused group Survey Sampling International. The demographics were weighted to reflect those of the state as a whole, and responses were scaled accordingly.

Pollsters didn’t attribute a cause to the split. “Really, nobody knows why that number is so much smaller. One can only speculate,” said Institute of Governmental Studies director Jack Citrin at the University of California, Berkeley.

“It could just be an issue with sample size.”

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