Editorial: The Death Coast

“Man is not in charge today. Money is in charge; money rules.” Two recent developments underscore this angry statement by Pope Francis, and the resulting harm from these developments — so thoughtlessly inflicted on the sick, the poor, the elderly — is our lasting shame.

The first is the news that Gov. Jerry Brown has signed a physician-assisted suicide bill in California. This bill was rushed through a special session of the legislature without adequate review or debate. As with all such assisted suicide legislation, it is presented as a great mercy for those who are suffering unbearable pain, and the appeal is made to our own darkest fears. In explaining his action, Brown said he asked himself, “what I would want in the face of my own death.”

But this is only the fear-based marketing of an insidious proposition. The experience of Belgium, the Netherlands and elsewhere suggests that once we allow the doctor to be not healer but killer, then the senile, the mentally ill, the handicapped, the depressed — in short, the weakest among us — become “mercifully” expendable.

Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, in an eloquent but failed appeal to Brown not to sign the bill into law, said: “Already, we know that poor families, African-Americans, Latinos and immigrants do not have access to quality health care, and they have limited treatment options when they face a serious or terminal illness. In a health care system that is cost-conscious and profit-driven, do we really imagine that these vulnerable populations will have a ‘choice’ to receive end-of-life care once we make lethal prescriptions an acceptable ‘treatment option’?”

As Oregon has already shown us, when choosing to allocate dollars for life-prolonging but expensive treatment or a low-cost prescription for death, insurance institutions are not likely to choose life. “Man is not in charge today.”

With California’s decision to join Washington and Oregon in offering physician-assisted suicide, the Left Coast has now become the Death Coast. More states will follow.

Of course, who knows what the cost of the suicide pills will soon be, given recent reports of obscene profiteering by drug companies like Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc. and Turing Pharmaceuticals. For these high-flying companies, “money is in charge; money rules.” Turing attracted unwanted attention recently when it increased the cost of a drug from $13.50 a pill to $700. Valeant is buying up the rights to produce established drugs, then raising the prices dramatically to increase their profitability, regardless of what individuals or insurance companies have to pay.

As is often the case, such predatory pricing is justified in terms of shareholder value: If “products are sort of mispriced and there’s an opportunity, we will act appropriately in terms of doing what I assume our shareholders would like us to do,” said Valeant’s CEO. In both cases, physician-assisted suicide and the price increases of necessary drugs, what is never discussed is the impact on those who are least likely to be able to defend themselves from these assaults on their dignity and their very being. Pope Francis has followed in the footsteps of his predecessors in begging society to make decisions based on the common good rather than self-interest or short-term gain. But appeals to one’s fear of pain, or appeals to the return for shareholders, trump any concern for the weak. The fig leaf of protection put into the California law will be easily surmounted, and then eroded. And the promise of aid to prescription drug users does not begin to minimize the impact of astronomical increases.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor