Compassion and Choices: 'Right to die' bill signed in California

California Gov. Jerry Brown attends workshop with mayors from around the world at Vatican

One of the more interesting aspects of California Governor Jerry Brown’s decision to sign assisted suicide legislation into law yesterday was the thoughtful reflection he offered in his announcement. “ABx2 15 is not an ordinary bill because it deals with life and death,” he wrote. “The crux of the matters is whether the State of California should continue to make it a crime for a dying person to end his life, no matter how great his pain or suffering.”

In his one page statement, he describes his own process in coming to a decision—talking to friends and doctors, a bishop and the pleas of different groups. “In the end,” he writes, “I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death.”

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“I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain. I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I wouldn’t deny that right to others.”

I suspect most people reading this will agree with Governor Brown; one might choose to face one’s own final days in any number of ways. But who is any of us to deny reasonable options to anyone else?

It’s the great problem, really, of the Catholic position against assisted suicide—on the face of it, it doesn’t seem grounded in the mercy and compassion one expects of the church, particularly at such a profoundly personal and difficult moment. One can argue until one is blue in the face that in fact pain management is not the problem that people fear it is, that in fact in Oregon, where assisted suicide has been legal for decades, most who choose that path do not do so because of pain. But still, there are cases, such as that of Britney Maynard, in which the pain cannot be managed. And the Catholic option of medicating the patient near or into a coma seems a meaningless, if not in some cases a cruel distinction.

But here is the danger of which we must stay aware: that assisted suicide becomes the cheap alternative to health care. That might sound ridiculous, great for a movie script but not ever the way things will work in reality. And, it must be acknowledged, the California legislators have worked to ensure that insurance companies will not be able to change what they cover as a result of this alternative.

But it’s also true that this legislation was brought forward over the summer during a special session in which Governor Brown had specifically been asking the legislators to help him brainstorm ways of dealing with rising health care costs. And alongside this bill, nothing of substance was done to address that financial issue.

As Edward Dolejsi, executive director of the California Catholic Conference pointed out in mid-September, “To its promoters, ABx2-15 is about compassion and choice. Where is the compassion when Medi-Cal won’t pay for pain relief but the Legislature responds by making physician assisted suicide ‘affordable?’

“And where is the choice when literally millions of Californians are told there is no coverage for second opinions or their cancer care, but look, we’ve made suicide an affordable option?”

California disability advocate Justin Harford echoes these concerns, noting that those Californians who live in poorer communities or rural communities, as he does, do not receive the same health care as elsewhere. “They’re not as likely to get sufficient pain management, they’re not as likely to get sufficient testing—we see this in the disability community, too.” The consequence is, as Dolejsi states, there is no real choice. “If you don’t have the right to choose to get chemotherapy when you get cancer, then it’s rather a phony choice to say you can ‘choose’ assisted suicide.”

Admittedly, these are possible outcomes, doomsday scenarios, as are the oft-expressed fears that giving doctors the ability to help end a life will make some people less likely to trust them, or that the terminally ill or disabled may end up feeling pressured to die, or that no matter what the legislature might think, insurance companies are almost certainly going to find ways to steer people out of treatment and into suicide. What will actually come of this new law, which today gives those with six months or less to live the right to have a physician prescribe them medicine, is still to be seen.

But we would be well advised to keep our legislators’ feet to the flame. In the California legislative debate politician after politician rose to speak in a heartfelt way about the demands of compassion. But to express concern about the way a person dies and at the same time not fund their ability to live or receive proper care is not compassion but inhumanity and expediency.   

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ed gleason
3 years ago
My wife and I, at 81 and 83 , she with Alzheimer's, choose to follow the 2000 year old Christian tradition with the word that Francis often uses.... Accompany ... .. 'accompany' is not taking the easy short way.... Brown ,who has had a long roundabout political career should know there are no short cuts. His veto of the death penalty law was done with political cost. A veto of assisted suicide would have been no cost politically and a lasting stand-up position. {fantasies of a 2016 run are just that... fantasies] I predict that in the near future, a Trump like candidate will propose that health care for the elderly is THE budget buster and 'steps need to be taken' .. [W/ 35% in the first polling!]. .
Alfred Chavez
3 years ago
All points alert: Killers on the loose in CA. Bar the doors; warn the children; get your advanced directives and living wills in order.
Alfred Chavez
3 years ago
I wonder how the life insurance industry is responding to this? AOTBE, they would prefer people live as long as possible. But maybe they like it--suicide may void a lot of policies. If so, a life insurance policy may be good leverage to keep anyone from pushing for assisted suicide.
geoffrey o'connell
3 years ago
Medicare and Esp. Medicare advantage plans are very happy with this legislation. Social Security also tends to save a bundle. Hospice programs are not very happy. San Francisco with become the ALS capital of the USA.
Henry George
3 years ago
Let me see if I have this right: Medicare/Medical/Insurance Companies rather you take the "Right to Die" Option than demand extended medical treatment. Is there anyone out there who does not think the sick and the elderly will be placed on the Ice Pack of Modern Medicine/Insurance and left to die ? Are the hairs of our heads numbered and does God know everything or not ? Too many Catholic excuse Abortions and now they will excuse Euthanasias - God help us all.
Tim O'Leary
3 years ago
So-called "Mercy Killing" is a form of mercy befitting an animal and not a human child of God, and is of course, along with abortion, anathema to the Hippocratic oath ("Nor shall any man's entreaty prevail upon me to administer poison to anyone; neither will I counsel any man to do so. Moreover, I will give no sort of medicine to any pregnant woman, with a view to destroy the child.") and Catholic/Christian teaching. But, once again, from Justice Taney (slavery) to Justice Brennan (Abortion), to Justice Kennedy etc (abortion, homosexual sex, etc.), self-identifying Catholics like Governor Brown, have abandoned the morality of their faith. Despite all protestations to the contrary, this is capital punishment for the elderly, as it already is practiced in places like the Netherlands.
Tim O'Leary
3 years ago
Update this morning from Governor Jerry Brown. He has vetoed a right-to-try bill, which would have given terminally ill patients access to experimental medications (drugs not yet approved by the FDA). So, he approves a "right-to-die" bill and vetoes a "right-to-try" bill. I guess the time "to keep our legislators’ feet to the flame" has already passed us by. One reason to withhold an unproven and potentially harmful drug is financial, since it might increase medical costs (increasing a patient's lifespan or increasing complications), whereas drugs certain to kill will reduce them. Another fine solution from a self-identifying-Catholic Democrat. http://www.latimes.com/local/political/la-me-pc-brown-experimental-drugs-measure-20151011-story.html
Sandi Sinor
3 years ago
Physician assisted suicide went into effect in Oregon in 1997. It is much more recent in Washington and Vermont. Since 1997, approximately 750 people have used this law to commit suicide, about 41/year over 18 years, including those who, like Brittany Maynard, may have moved to Oregon in order to have this choice if they wished. According to data kept by the state of Oregon, most do not make this choice due to fear of unmanageable pain. Many fear loss of being, of their essence, and loss of dignity when becoming helpless to attend to their own personal physical needs, and the impact of these factors on those whom they love. However, a greater than average number who chose physician assisted suicide were single, with no close family. So they may have had a different fear - that there would be nobody to be with them as they lay dying. Certainly that is a fear that christians might be able to help with, that would discourage those who are alone from choosing an earlier death. More than 40,000 people commit suicide each year. Approximately 20,000, half of those who committed suicide chose guns as the way they would kill themselves. Those who are concerned about this type of legislation should also think about working for gun control. There are also age group and ethnicity patterns - a higher rate/1000 among the young, and a higher rate of suicide among ethnic minorities, including Native Americans. Those who are concerned about suicide might also look into how they can help - visit the dying who have no family? Work to improve conditions for poor minorities? There are many possibilities.

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