In a rare move, the bishops of California are supporting a signature gathering campaign to place on the November 2016 ballot a referendum to overturn the state’s new physician-assisted suicide law. Kickoff of the signature gathering efforts varied by diocese, with the Diocese of Orange and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in Southern California scheduled to begin on Christ the King Sunday, Nov. 22, while the Diocese of Santa Rosa, north of San Francisco, was to begin collecting signatures at the parishes the first two weekends in December.

“The California bishops as a group are supporting the signature gathering campaign to place a referendum on the ballot,” said Steve Pehanich, director of communications and advocacy for the California Catholic Conference. The petition to collect signatures for a referendum to repeal the law was filed with the California secretary of state by a nonsectarian group founded by psychologist Mark Hoffman of Seniors Against Suicide on Oct. 6, the day after California Gov. Jerry Brown signed the assisted suicide bill (ABx2-15) into law. If successful, the referendum would be on the November 2016 ballot.

A ‘doable’ goal

In general, the California bishops wait until a petition has qualified for the ballot before taking action, but they have made an exception in this case, said Kathleen Buckley Domingo of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

“A lot of people are underinsured or uninsured in California,” Domingo said, adding that poor people will be victimized by this law. “For them, assisted suicide is always going to be the cheapest option. We are really concerned about coercion, even coercion within families, and we really want to protect those folks.”

“The Catholic bishops have really stepped up to the plate and have supported this effort through all the churches, Catholic and Christian alike,” said Stephanie Packer, who has become a spokesperson for the campaign against assisted suicide. Packer, who is married with four young children, is terminally ill with scleroderma, receives oxygen 24 hours a day and gets her nutrition intravenously. Despite her pain and struggles, she has started “to find beauty in every single day in every moment,” she said. “You start to appreciate everything. You go beyond happiness, and you become joyful.”

The number of verified signatures required is 365,880 to be submitted to the secretary of state by Jan. 4, Packer said. “This is definitely doable.”

The Knights of Columbus are coordinating the parish-based effort in California. “This is the Roe v. Wade of our time,” said Mark Padilla, Culture of Life Chair for the Knights of Columbus in California.

Growing success

Measures to legalize physician-assisted suicide have been attempted more than 100 times but have succeed in only four states: Washington, Oregon, Vermont and now California. In Montana, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that physician “aid in dying” is not against public policy — a ruling that protects doctors against litigation.

The California End of Life Options Act 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. It was introduced in a special legislative session in August called to address health care costs after a similar bill, SB128, stalled in Assembly committee during the regular session.

Under California’s law, 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. There are no safeguards as to who accepts the package or whether the ill or disabled person ingests the medication through his or her own will or is given it by someone else. The two witnesses can be an employee of the nursing home and an heir or relative, under the law. The cause of death is listed as the underlying illness, not assisted suicide.

Valerie Schmalz writes from California.