Groups ready to fight California suicide law

As they consider ways to repeal California’s new assisted suicide law, the state’s bishops have voiced their support of a signature-gathering campaign.

In an Oct. 12 statement on the new law released by the California Catholic Conference, the bishops stated that “Concerned opponents of physician-assisted suicide have already started the process for a referendum. We affirm and support them in that decision. As citizens of this state, we all have the right and ... duty to ensure that the voice of the people, especially those most vulnerable, is heard.”

How the California bishops will implement their decision is still under consideration.

“Nothing is formalized yet. They are looking at all options,” Steve Pehanich, director of communication and advocacy for the California Catholic Conference, told Our Sunday Visitor.

“We aren’t taking anything off the table at this point,” said Tim Rosales of Californians Against Assisted Suicide, a statewide coalition of organizations opposed to physician-assisted suicide, which issued a statement saying, “This is a dark day for California and for the Brown legacy.”

Opponents of physician-assisted suicide in California were dismayed by Gov. Jerry Brown’s decision to sign the End of Life Options Act on Oct. 5, and by his highly personal letter that accompanied his signature. The 77-year-old former Jesuit seminarian — and former volunteer with Mother Teresa in India — wrote that his decision to sign the legislation was ultimately swayed by his own desire to have the option of physician assisted suicide.

“Gov. Brown’s decision to allow doctors to help their patients kill themselves is deeply disturbing,” said a statement by Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, who had lobbied intensely against the assisted suicide legislation.

“This is a new path for the state, and we have no idea where it will lead.”

Critics speak out

The End of Life Options Act, which allows a physician to prescribe a lethal dose of narcotics to someone who is diagnosed with a terminal illness and given a prognosis of six months to live, was introduced in an August special legislative session called to address health care costs. When the bill goes into effect is up in the air because the special session has not been adjourned. The law cannot go into effect until adjournment of the special session, which could stay active until September 2016, Pehanich said.

It was the eighth such bill introduced in California since 1994, according to the Patients Rights Council, a national organization based in Ohio. Physician-assisted suicide is legal by law in Oregon, Washington, Vermont and now California. In Montana, while there is no law, the state Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that physician “aid in dying” is not against public policy — a ruling that protects doctors against litigation in such cases.

A group called Seniors Against Suicide filed papers with the state attorney general’s office Oct. 6 to seek a referendum to overturn the measure on the November 2016 ballot. The group would have 90 days, or until Jan. 3, to collect the signatures of about 500,000 registered voters. If the group is successful, the ballot proposition will “allow the people of California in November 2016 to do what Gov. Brown should have done — veto this dangerous legislation,” said Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities. “Attorneys are exploring the law’s many legal flaws and the possibility of a lawsuit,” he said.

In an Oct. 6 statement, Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley of Boston, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, said the Church will “redouble its efforts to protect innocent life at its most vulnerable stages, and to promote palliative care and other real solutions for the problems and hardships of terminally ill patients and their families.”

Doerflinger predicted the Committee on Pro-Life Activities will address the issue at the bishops’ meeting in November.

Legislation’s flaws

Rita Marker of the Patients Rights Council said the California law, like the one in Oregon, provides no real safeguards for those accessing a prescription for lethal dose of medicine from their doctor. Those reporting the dispensing of the prescription are the ones who are doing it, she said, and there are no penalties in place for noncompliance. Not only that, the death certificate does not list assisted suicide as the cause of death but instead cites the underlying illness, Marker said.

California’s law adds another twist, because after the required two-week waiting period following a terminal diagnosis, the patient can write or phone to get the assisted suicide prescription and the dose can be sent via mail to the patient. Anyone can sign for the package, Marker said. In addition, the decision for physician-assisted suicide must be witnessed by two people, but in California only one of them has to be disinterested — not an heir or relative — which means the other person can be someone who has a financial interest in the patient’s death, she said.

Physician-assisted suicide laws may “shape the ethos of a culture by influencing moral norms” toward suicide (see sidebar), said Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, associate clinical professor of psychiatry and director of the medical ethics program at University of California Irvine School of Medicine.

Concern for the poor

The state Assembly on Sept. 11 passed the bill to Brown’s desk, where it went unsigned for weeks. But in an open letter to the legislature that accompanied his signature on the bill, the governor detailed his decision-making process.

“In the end, I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death,” Brown wrote. “I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain. I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I wouldn’t deny that right to others.”

Kheriaty criticized Brown’s line of thinking. “I think it’s really problematic, because the governor’s role is not to ask the question, ‘How would this legislation impact me?’ His role is to ask, ‘How would this impact all Californians?” Kheriaty said.

Cardinal O’Malley, in his statement released by the USCCB, said the tragedy of the law, which now brings assisted suicide to all three states on the Pacific Coast, “is compounded by confusion among those who supported this law.” He noted that “most people taking the legal drugs do so not because of pain but because they feel they are helpless and a ‘burden’ on others.”

Noting that millions of Californians rely on government-subsidized health care, which does not provide access to hospice care or palliative care that includes effective pain management, Archbishop Gomez wrote, “How does the state plan to prevent lethal prescriptions to commit suicide from becoming the only ‘option’ available for the poor?’

“And once we establish in law that some lives are not as valuable as others — not worth ‘paying for’ — what will be next for California?”

Valerie Schmalz writes from California.