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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 couldnt 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 bills 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
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 states 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 bills 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
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 cant 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 Oregons 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
"Californias Dance with Death" and
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
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. Its 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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