Catholic Church Helps Bench Death with Dignity Bill in California

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July 8, 2015; CBS Los Angeles

After weeks of lobbying by interest groups on both sides of the debate on death with dignity, the California legislative Assembly Health Committee voted on Tuesday to shelve a bill this year that would have made California the fifth state to legalize physician-assisted suicide, after Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Vermont.

Among those that were actively lobbying in opposition to the bill were members of the Catholic Church, who were calling on parishioners to contact lawmakers and sway their votes to oppose the bill.

Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez wrote to the committee urging lawmakers to oppose the bill that would enable those suffering from terminal illnesses to choose to end their lives legally. The Office of Life, Justice, and Peace of the diocese has a website dedicated to opposing the bill, and the Diocese of Orange also had a spotlight on their website urging followers to write letters to legislators to vote no to the considering the bill.

“For the Catholic community here in Los Angeles, this is not a ‘Catholic’ issue or a question of our doctrine or ethics,” Gomez said in a statement after the vote. “For us, the issue of physician-assisted suicide involves fundamental questions of human dignity and social justice.”

For some legislators, the Church’s involvement was not instrumental in reaching a decision. “It’s not a religious thing for me; it’s how this is going to be implemented in the real world,” said state assemblyman and Democrat Jimmy Gomez.

While the Church has often been the opposite side of California’s liberal political agenda (including the national policy change in marriage equality), at least on the issue of death with dignity laws, it has found several like-minded interest groups, such as Californians Against Assisted Suicide, Choice is an Illusion, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, California Foundation for Independent Living Centers, Medical Oncology Association of Southern California, among others.

“And we are not alone in our concerns,” said Archbishop Gomez in the statement. “We are part of a diverse and broad coalition—ranging from health care professionals and persons living with disabilities to leaders in our African American, Hispanic and immigrant communities.”

Tim Rosales from Californians Against Assisted Suicide remarked on how this broad coalition opposing the bill, from clergy members to healthcare officials, helped affect the decision. Proponents of the bill also tried to enlist help from faith leaders, perhaps to show a similar spectrum of supporters.

This wouldn’t be the first time that the Church has made it into mainstream news recently. A few weeks ago, NPQ covered some comments made by Pope Francis on a wide range of topics, including inciting more concern for the environment, a topic that usually does not acquire the same attention from the Church as gay marriage or reproductive rights.

Over the last year or so, death with dignity has been gaining slow institutional support, as in the case of the California Medical Association. Stories such as that of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old diagnosed with terminal brain cancer who moved to Oregon to take advantage of the right-to-die law, also help to bring the issue to a personal level for the public. A Gallup poll from May indicates seven out of ten Americans support physician-assisted suicide, up ten percent from last year. Last year, a survey of 21,000 doctors also showed record support for assisted suicide, with 54 percent—for the first time, a majority of doctors—in favor of the practice.

Time and again, right-to-die legislation gains strong state support only to die a quick death, either being vetoed by the governor or stalling in committees, as in California’s case. While the battle may have been lost for California supporters this year, the war may continue next year if they choose to reintroduce the bill for consideration.—Shafaq Hasan

  • DC

    I had hoped the article would explain why the Church among many others were opposing this legislation because no other media coverage has done this. It has only extolled the benefits of ‘death with dignity.’
    Thus, this turns into another article that creates the appearance of the Church meddling in public policy. But in fact, one of the best reasons to oppose the legislation is because individuals who are so debilitated and near death are also psychologically vulnerable to the predations of unscrupulous ‘caretakers’… This is probably the best reason to prevent this type of legislation which appeared to have no safeguards.

    If I wanted to end my life I would take full responsibility and not ask anybody else to assist me, I would not want to either ‘trust’ anybody with such instructions, nor would I want to pull anybody into the position of becoming the cause of a human being’s death.

    I’m disappointed, but not surprised, neither the bishops or spokesperson quoted in this story explained their opposition very well. And it doesn’t look like it was a focus of the writer.

    • Thom Omytes

      Seems this article was a bit premature. The law needs only for the Governor to sign it now, and it will be passed, and people will have a choice on their own life to avoid needless suffering. All of the fearmongering may be ignored, as those with a knowledge of the complete lack of abuse in the Oregon law over nearly two decades realize it is a smokescreen placed by the religious who feel they know what is best for everyone else. Kudos, California lawmakers… you got it right.