Governor Jerry Brown signed California’s “Right to Die” bill into law on Oct. 5, making California the fifth and largest U.S. state to establish procedures for legal physician-assisted suicide. In an unusually personal signing statement, the governor suggested that he had grappled with the ethics and morality of the bill, considering the reflections of the law’s proponents but also people with disabilities and religious leaders and theologians who objected to it.
He writes: “In the end I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death. 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 be able to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I wouldn’t deny that right to others.”
“I think it’s a dark day,” said Tim Rosales, a spokesperson for Californians Against Assisted Suicide, a broad coalition of disability rights organizations, medical professionals and faith-based organizations (including the California Catholic Conference).
“I’m certainly sad and disappointed, especially given the fact that the legislature and the governor were unable to address the Medi-Cal crisis but chose to sign an assisted suicide bill into law. I think that should be very concerning for all Californians.”
CAAS includes many member organizations representing people with disabilities who had been deeply critical of the proposed legislation. Today, Rosales said, “I think there are a number of advocates on this very controversial issue that feel that their lives will be directly impacted in a negative way by the signing of this bill.”
The California Catholic Conference issued a statement Monday afternoon deploring the governor's decision to sign ABx2-15 the End-of-Life Option Act: “For vulnerable people, this isn’t compassion. There’s nothing in this law that supports or promotes the common good. This bill does nothing to validate the lives of the vulnerable. If anything, this bill says just the opposite and only serves to increase their emotional burden. And it facilitates subtle but potent pressures on the elderly and the disabled to end their lives rather than become a financial or emotional burden on their children.
“Pope Francis has warned us about our 'throwaway culture.' Have we become so callous in protecting the sacredness of life that we easily approve of a physician handing over a lethal dose of drugs to someone to end their life at their most vulnerable moment when they most need to be cared for with love and attention?"
The conference warned that the new law would mean pressure on the poor to end their lives rather than seek compassionate end of life care. “Nothing illustrates what is wrong with this bill more," the conference said, "than how it got to Governor Brown’s desk having failed to even get out of committee in the normal legislative process."
Governor Brown had previously suggested that he was uncomfortable with the manner the legislation was handled this summer, inspiring some hope that he would not sign the bill into law. After a previous version of the legislation failed to make it through the California legislature, a revived "right to die" measure had been brought back into the state legislature as part of a special session intended to address funding shortfalls for Medi-Cal, the state’s health insurance program for the poor, a strategy the governor had criticized.
During that session, the California Catholic Conference points out, "The Legislature and Governor did not address the problems nor offer ways to bring down the cost of healthcare. Millions of people on Medi-Cal are still not eligible for palliative or other ‘end-of-life care.’ Instead, lawmakers’ solution to bringing down health care costs is to allow physicians to end a person’s life. This will adversely affect the poor, as those with resources will always have access to palliative care. This is not compassion."
The conference suggested that "the very real concerns and risks posed to our brothers and sisters in vulnerable communities of the disabled and elderly have been consistently ignored by our state’s elected officials.
"In a health care system grappling with constantly escalating costs, the elderly and disabled are in great peril now that assisted suicide has become legal. Application of such a law elsewhere shows that the option to offer the low-cost alternative of lethal drugs instead of proper medical care is a temptation not long resisted."
As to next steps, Rosales said his coalition will be reviewing its option. They may include legal challenges or petitioning for a referendum. “We’re not taking anything off the table at this point,” he said.
California’s measure came after at least two dozen states introduced aid-in-dying legislation this year, though the measures stalled elsewhere. Doctors in Oregon, Washington, Vermont and Montana already can prescribe life-ending drugs.