California's Dance with Death | Valerie Schmalz
California's Dance with Death | Valerie Schmalz | February 17, 2005
Physician-assisted suicide advocates predict California this year will
become the second state in the union after Oregon to make it legal for
doctors to prescribe lethal drug doses to dying patients.
But nothing in life is certain and since the Oregon law took effect in
1997, opposition by state medical associations and activism by disability
rights groups have tilted the balance away from passage elsewhere in the
U.S. Both factors will be in play in California.
In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court this spring will decide whether to
hear Bush Administration arguments that Oregons Death With Dignity
Act violates federal controlled substances law.
The California Catholic Conference has made derailing physician-assisted
suicide its top legislative priority this year. It is joining with the
Alliance for Catholic Healthcare and other allies to fight it. The California
Medical Association and twelve disability rights groups, including
Dead Yet, the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, and the National
Council on Disability, also oppose physician-assisted suicide.
"Of course its cheaper to provide a $35 lethal prescription
rather than take care of someone," said Carol Hogan, executive director
of the California
Catholic Conference, noting millions of Californians dont have
health care insurance and that end of life care or any serious illness
can cost $100,000 or more.
Previous California assisted suicide efforts failed in 1992 and in 1999.
The 1992 legislation included euthanasia.
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," the 84-year-old pontiff said.
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."
Bill sponsors, Democratic State Assembly Members Patty
Berg and Lloyd
Levine, held two public hearings in late January and early February.
In addition to predicting passage by the Democrat-controlled legislature,
Berg expressed hope that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a
Republican and pro-choice Catholic, would sign it. Schwarzenegger has
not said what he would do if the bill passed.
While efforts in other states so far have failed since Oregons law
took effect, assisted suicide legislation is introduced regularly around
the country. In Hawaii, lawmakers killed an assisted suicide bill in committee
in early February, but legislation modeled on the Oregon law is under
consideration in Vermont and Arizona.
In 1994, Oregon's state medical association took a neutral stance and
assisted suicide opponents were portrayed as shoving their religious beliefs
onto otherswhich opponents credit with aiding its passage.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1997 ruled that people do not have a constitutional
right to assisted suicide.
"There have to be alternatives to the way some people spend their
final days," bill sponsor Berg said.
Further, Berg contends, excessive pain medication and withdrawal of food
and water are common: "I want to make clear that hastening a death
is not a new concept. It happens every day, and it has for generations.
But unlike the patient-controlled choice we are talking about in this
bill, the current system can leave the patient out of the final decisions,"
Berg said the bill will be modeled on Oregons law, which does not
allow euthanasia. An adult whom a physician has predicted 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 decisionbut that does not preclude being depressedsee
two physicians, make written and oral requests for the medication, and
wait two weeks.
"Its discriminatory. The idea that this is about autonomy is
a lie," said Stephen Drake, Not
Dead Yet policy analyst, speaking from Illinois. Not Dead Yet was
founded by people with disabilities after Dr. Jack Kevorkian assisted
in the suicides of two disabled women who were not dying.
"Were opposed to any legalization of assisted suicide. The
people theyre talking about with terminal illness are already by
definition people with disabilities," Drake said. "Obviously
if people were perfect up until the point they dropped over, there would
be no issue about this."
Drake said that in perusing Hemlock Society literature dating back several
decades, it is clear that physician-assisted suicide is the first step
in an incremental strategy. That strategy could lead to the situation
in the Netherlands where in 1997 eight percent of infant deaths were "physician
induced," according to The Lancet, a British medical journal.
The Lancet estimated that in 2001, physicians euthanized about
3,000 patients, assisted in the suicide of about 140 patientsbut
ended "life without patient's explicit request" for some 840 patients.
Internationally, the Netherlands has legalized euthanasia and Belgium
has legalized physician-assisted suicide. Physician-assisted suicide requires
that the patient give himself the lethal dose. With euthanasia, the physician
The American Medical Association opposes physician-assisted suicide.
While physician-assisted suicide advocates such as Berg say the law will
provide safeguards, the Oregon experience proves the opposite, said Wesley
J. Smith, consultant to the International
Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide.
"We really dont know what has been going on in Oregon. The
practice of assisted suicide is conducted in utter secret. The State of
Oregon exercises no independent oversight," Smith said. "All
the state knows is what the death-describing doctors tell the state when
they send in assisted suicide forms."
Newspaper reports of individual cases are disturbing, including a woman
with cancer and Alzheimers who received assisted suicide despite
two mental health professionals stating that there were family pressures,
If assisted-suicide legislation is enacted, the economics of what can
be expensive end-of-life care will take over, the Catholic Conferences
Hogan predicted. "Unfortunately, what starts as a choice often ends
as an obligation."
"The key question is what should society's response be to suicide
desire?" asks Smith. "Surely, we want it to be suicide preventionnot
just for some, but for everyone.
"Indeed, when I was a hospice volunteer I was taught that suicidal
desire in a patient meant that the patient had an urgent need that was
not being fulfilled. Also, that when that issue was addressed, the desire
usually disappeared. These important matters should be approached with
compassionate, hands on care: Not a jar of poison pills."
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.
If you'd like to receive the FREE
IgnatiusInsight.com e-letter (about every 2 to 3 weeks), which includes
regular updates about IgnatiusInsight.com articles, reviews, excerpts, and
please click here to sign-up today!