A Welcome Obituary: Assisted Suicide Dies in California | By Valerie Schmalz | June 3, 2005

A Welcome Obituary: Assisted Suicide Dies in California | By Valerie Schmalz | June 3, 2005

An aggressive attempt to make assisted suicide the law in California is down for the count for this state legislative session and a key strategist predicts it may well founder even if proponents bring it to the voters in an initiative.

This was one of the strongest attempts to legalize assisted suicide this year and its apparent defeat heartened Catholics, disability rights activists, and advocates for poor and uninsured people.

"At the end of the day the proponents couldn’t find even twenty votes to publicly support this bill," Tim Rosales, spokesman for Californians Against Assisted Suicide, said of the eighty-person Assembly. "We had an overwhelming amount of the Assembly oppose this bill. As soon as they realized this was not about the right to die but about doctors killing people, support for this legislation evaporated as it always has."

The bill’s sponsors plan to use a parliamentary maneuver to bring the bill to the Senate but Rosales predicted that is a losing proposition.

"Through the good lobbying efforts of lots of grassroots folks, we have definitely convinced them they do not have the votes to bring it up," said Ned Dolesji, executive director of the California Catholic Conference.

A 1992 voter initiative was defeated in a statewide vote and an attempt to pass it through the California legislature failed in 1999. At present, Oregon is the only state in the union that has legalized assisted suicide. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1997 there is no constitutionally guaranteed right to suicide.

The California bill, AB654, was voted out of committee but will not be voted upon before a legislative deadline of Friday, June 3, Dolejsi said. Bill sponsors Assembly Members Patty Berg and Lloyd Levine have launched a last ditch effort to insert the language into an existing Assembly bill that has already moved to the Senate, but Rosales and Dolejsi are confident that effort will fail. The bill would need to go through two Senate committees and come up for a vote and Rosales said the Senate is even less likely to take action.

Rosales said that more than thirty organizations representing disability rights and low income groups, as well as the California Medical Association and Catholic hospitals, lobbied against the bill through the broad-based coalition, Californians Against Assisted Suicide. The California Catholic Conference, the policy arm of the state’s bishops, made defeating assisted suicide its top legislative priority.

As a sign of the extent of opposition, representatives from the Coalition of Concerned Medical Professionals and the Western Service Workers, two organizations that serve the working poor and uninsured in California, presented petitions with over 32,000 signatures against AB 654 to Assembly Floor Leader Dario Frommer's office on June 1.

"They will have even less support in the Senate than in the Assembly," said Laura Remson Mitchell of the California Disability Alliance. "This battle is over."

Despite the apparent momentum, a disability rights advocate warned against complacency. He believes that assisted suicide will be on the statewide ballot via a voter initiative.

"This is about money, not personal choice," said Paul Longmore, professor of history at San Francisco State University and director of the S.F. State Institute on Disability.

The bill sponsors, Berg and Levine, said the bill’s goal was to give people choice at the end of their lives. In promoting the bill Berg has said, "There have to be alternatives to the way some people spend their final days."

But, Longmore said the real backers are profit-based health care organizations and government forces who do not want to pay for health care for poor people or for those with expensive medical conditions.

"We can’t afford to be complacent. There are powerful forces at work to get this adopted," said Longmore, who has a disability.

Will Shuck, spokesman for Assemblywoman Berg, said of the idea HMOs are involved: "There's absolutely no truth to that." Shuck says the bill continues to move and is gaining support in the state Senate.

Under the legislation, modeled on Oregon’s assisted suicide law, an adult whom a physician has concluded has less than six months to live may receive deadly medication to self-administer. The person must be determined by the physician to be mentally competent to make a decision (but that does not preclude being depressed), see two physicians, make written and oral requests for the medication, and wait two weeks. In 1997 Oregon become the first and so far only state to legalize assisted suicide. (See "California’s Dance with Death" and "Oregon’s Suicide Wish, A Cautionary Tale".)

Internationally, both the Netherlands and Belgium have legalized euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. Physician-assisted suicide requires that the patient give himself the lethal dose. With euthanasia, the physician administers death.

In the case of Oregon, the state medical association adopted a neutral stance, but in California the state medical association opposed it. The American Medical Association opposes physician-assisted suicide.

"Let us begin by giving thanks to God for this victory because nothing is possible without the power of the Holy Spirit," said Bill May, chairman of Catholics for the Common Good in a news release June 2. "Strengthen us Father and send the Holy Spirit among us that we may continue to witness the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

Assisted suicide opponents said key opposition to the legislation came from groups that are secular and identify themselves as progressive politically. "People who are poor are always concerned when the economic incentives are lined up against them. It’s certainly cheaper subtly or directly or find ways to coerce people into committing suicide," said Dolejsi.

Opponents to assisted suicide include the California Foundation of Independent Living Centers, League of United Latin American Citizens, De La Raza Roundtable of San Jose, the Western Service Workers Association, and the Alliance for Catholic Healthcare, the umbrella organization for Catholic hospitals.

The late Pope John Paul II specifically addressed euthanasia in his Lenten address January 27, 2005, in Rome, urging Catholics to reject "a certain mentality which considers our elderly brothers and sisters practically useless when they find themselves confronted by reduced capacities by the inconveniences of age or illness."

"The life of man is a precious gift, which we must love and defend at all of its stages," said the 84-year-old pontiff, whose dying and death inspired many around the world.

To combat the ongoing assisted suicide campaign, the Catholic Conference in 2002 created a web-site, "Embracing Our Dying." It states, "We believe that a dying person's request for ‘assisted suicide’ is actually a cry for help coming from a fear of helplessness and a fear of abandonment."

Valerie Schmalz is a writer for IgnatiusInsight. She worked as a reporter and editor for The Associated Press, and in print and broadcast media for ten years. She holds a BA in Government from University of San Francisco and a Master of Science from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She is the former director of Birthright of San Francisco. Valerie and her wonderful husband have four children.

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