California’s pro-life community has pledged to continue its fight against the state’s new physician-assisted suicide law, which takes effect on June 9.
After falling short on a referendum campaign to overturn the law, efforts will focus mainly on education — although legislative and judicial remedies also are being considered, according to Michael Caspino, president of Legatus’ Orange Canyons Chapter and chairman of the Coalition Against Assisted Suicide.
Bishop Jaime Soto, president of the California Catholic Conference, told Legatus magazine the state’s bishops would like to partner with Catholic hospitals to help people understand why the new law is a mistake. The bishops also launched a website and have been holding workshops.
“We have a lot to do — particularly in this Year of Mercy — to convey how God’s mercy helps us all to approach death and dying as good disciples of the Lord Jesus,” he explained. “It’s one thing for us as pastors to convey to Catholics the values of the Gospel given to us by the Lord Jesus. The other is to persuade Catholics of the importance of bringing those values into the public square.”
Pro-life advocates made an effort to challenge California’s End of Life Option Act — signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last October — but had just 90 days to collect 366,000 valid signatures. The effort garnered roughly 250,000 signatures.
“We may have fallen short this time,” Caspino said, “but we put a solid statement out there that we’re serious, and the bishops are serious, and we’re going to continue fighting this law.”
Among the pro-life community’s options are a ballot initiative to amend the state constitution and a legal challenge. Like the referendum, the constitutional amendment would require 366,000 valid signatures, but the coalition would have six months to collect them, Caspino said.
A potential lawsuit would challenge the manner in which the measure was approved as well as whether the state has the right under the state constitution to dictate such a regulation, he added.
A diverse coalition of California’s bishops and disability, senior, medical and pro-life groups have, from the outset, opposed the law which allows doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs for terminal patients with six months to live.
Megan Schirle, community partner with the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund blasted the new law as “so flawed that they put at risk society’s most vulnerable populations.”
Among the group’s primary concerns is that the law contains no requirement for psychological evaluation, psycho-social assessment, or counseling for those seeking physician-assisted suicide. A person seeking to end his or her life because of a terminal diagnosis or prognosis could benefit from treatment, care and social support, she said, adding that many people have survived and thrived well beyond terminal diagnoses or prognoses.
“Depression, fear of becoming dependent, isolated or a burden — all these can occur following any major diagnosis — and they are all treatable,” Schirle said. Under the California law (modeled after Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act), however, “people with depression and other mental illness are neither adequately screened, nor given the care they need when they most need it.”
Marie Hilliard, director of bioethics and public policy for the National Catholic Bioethics Center, agreed. In Oregon, one of only five states allowing assisted suicide, out of 859 physician-assisted suicide deaths between 1998 and 2014, only 47 were referred for psychological evaluation.
“People will say you have to alleviate even psychological suffering,” she explained. “To kill the sufferer seems to be the remedy even before doing an evaluation to see what’s going on. When you treat pain and depression, the request [for physician-assisted suicide] goes away, so clearly what we’re seeing is the remedy to address suffering is to kill the sufferer.”
The slippery slope
Bishop Soto said people who support assisted suicide often do so out of a misconstrued perception of liberty — or out of a hesitancy to interfere or offer their own values for another’s benefit. This reluctance to share values, he said, is a misconstrued form of compassion.
“In many cases, it’s becoming a nice way of being indifferent.”
A look at countries and U.S. states that have legalized assisted-suicide laws shows the potential for massive abuse, which pro-life advocates say is taking place behind the statistics.
In 2014, 126 people reportedly died by assisted suicide in Washington State — up by 6% from 119 assisted suicide deaths in 2013 and a 43% increase from in 2012. According to the state’s annual report, doctors wrote 176 lethal prescriptions resulting in 126 assisted suicide deaths, 17 deaths from other causes, 27 deaths from an unknown cause and six people remain alive.
In the Netherlands, up to 23% of the assisted deaths are not reported. In Belgium the percentage of unreported assisted deaths is even higher. Thus, it would not be surprising if 20% of the assisted suicide deaths in Washington State are not reported.
A bill is currently under consideration in New York, but efforts to pass similar measures have failed in Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland and Colorado. Internationally, assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, Colombia, The Netherlands, Belgium, and Canada (Quebec).
Hilliard believes that in the U.S., the Brittany Maynard case generated great sympathy for assisted-suicide initiatives. Maynard, a 29-year-old Californian with terminal brain cancer, moved to Oregon in 2014 so she could end her life under that state’s assisted-suicide law.
Assisted-suicide legislation, Hilliard said, is also fueled by contemporary society’s desire for a perfect life — and now a “perfect death” without suffering.
But assisted suicide in other countries has led to a “duty to die” and a slippery slope to more extreme measures. For example, in The Netherlands, Schirle said, doctor-assisted suicide has morphed into involuntary euthanasia for many elderly and disabled people deemed unable to give consent.
The Netherlands allows voluntary euthanasia for children over 12. Although infant euthanasia is technically illegal, charges are not filed where there is “hopeless and unbearable suffering” and, among other things, parental consent.
“In the U.S.,” Schirle said, “we already have legal rights regarding our end-of-life care —including good pain relief and palliative sedation if dying in pain. We should ensure people’s access to these before enacting a law that, while purporting to promote ‘choice’ for the individual, can potentially rob that choice from so many.”
Click on the graphs for larger images.
JUDY ROBERTS is a Legatus magazine staff writer.
Learn more: CaCatholic.org/embracing-our-dying