SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Bed-bound for the past 11 years, Judith Koch might have a reason to support California’s End-of-Life Care bill.
“I was on hospice and I almost died,” said Koch, who has Multiple Sclerosis. “If it wasn’t for my mom trying to feed me what little I could eat, I wouldn’t be here.”
But the 65-year-old, who lives with her frail mother, Anita Thomen, 95, is opposed to Assembly Bill 2747, which would require physicians to provide the patient with “information and counseling” about end-of-life care options. “We have a right to live until God says time is up,” she said, “but to encourage anything to make it happen faster, absolutely not!”
California’s continuing flirtation with euthanasia heated up in late August, as the bill, sponsored by Assemblywoman Patty Berg, a Democrat, was passed by the state Assembly Aug. 28. The state Senate passed it Aug. 20.
In a statement filed with the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 26, Berg wrote: “Information and counseling regarding end-of-life care options are essential for many terminally ill patients and their families. End-of-life counseling is a covered benefit under Medicare. By requiring providers to give information to their patients on all legal end-of-life care options at the patient’s request, the bill protects and encourages crucial conversations that neither the physician nor the patient may know how to begin.”
But Republican Assemblyman Greg Aghazarian said that he was “troubled by the fact that this bill would put California on the slippery slope toward involving doctors in end-of-life decision making and could even push people with a terminal diagnosis into ending their lives.
“Doctors should be healers and should never be put in a position where they are directly or indirectly helping people hurt themselves and their loved ones,” Aghazarian said in a statement.
The bill provides that the “information and counseling” can occur over a series of meetings and may involve health-care providers other than the attending physician.
“The bill is unnecessary, poorly crafted, and only introduces confusion into the law,” said Carol Hogan of the California Catholic Conference. “The sponsor of the bill was Compassion & Choices. We have no indication they’ve changed their philosophy but [they] needed to get something passed to prove to their supporters they spent their money wisely.”
Compassion & Choices, formally known as the Hemlock Society, is a national organization that pursues the legalization of what the organization calls “physician aid in dying,” and to “help patients and their loved ones face the end of life with calming facts and choices of action during a difficult time.”
Hogan continued, “Our strategy with the governor is to support the doctors who don’t see a need for this bill as these issues are already going to be discussed.”
Bill May from Catholics for the Common Good, which tries to promote the social teachings of the Church, told the Register, “Compassion & Choices and others supporting euthanasia are nibbling around the edges and trying to put language in law to support their long-term agenda of assisted suicide and euthanasia. They want to encourage people to their end lives early, rather than receive the love and care they deserve during the process of dying.”
Urging a Veto
Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion & Choices, disputed May’s assessment.
“Mr. May’s statements about Compassion & Choices are falsehoods, and we take offense at the effort to misrepresent our organization’s mission,” Lee said. “We have never supported euthanasia. It’s time for Mr. May to go to confession, because lying is a sin.”
In a prepared statement, Coombs said: “This bill serves as a national model for patients to receive the necessary information and power to choose end-of-life care. A duty to share information enables patients to work with their doctors to choose care that matches their values and desires. The [End-of-Life Care bill] ensures patients are aware of their condition and receive the care most appropriate for their desires about how to spend their precious remaining time.”
Hogan said in response that Catholic teaching “comports with the traditional stance of our society, that each human life has inherent dignity.
“Our response to a patient who receives a terminal illness diagnosis should be a compassionate embrace as a demonstration of fidelity to him or her as a valued member of the human community, not the presentation of a list of ‘end-of-life care’ options available as the end approaches,” Hogan said.
The bill was extensively amended to remove its most controversial aspects, which detailed information on voluntarily stopping eating and drinking, and on palliative sedation, in which sedatives are administered to the point of unconsciousness in the terminally ill patient.
Californians Against Assisted Suicide urged Schwarzenegger to veto the bill.
“This bill mandates, at an inappropriate time, that a doctor must provide information to people, or Compassion & Choices, or Final Exit Network [can talk to the patient],” said spokesman Tim Rosales. “It is an open door for doctors to refer patients to those types of groups for end-of-life issues.”
As the Register went to press, several bills, including this one, were being held, pending passage of a state budget. If the bill reaches the governor’s desk, however, he would have until Sept. 30 to sign it or veto it. If he does nothing, it automatically becomes law.
Lisa Page, chief deputy press secretary for the governor’s office, told the Register Sept. 4 that the governor has taken no position on the assisted-suicide bill.
Final Exit Network advocates “the right to die a peaceful and painless death at the time and place of the individual’s choosing.”
Rosales continued, “Nothing in current law prevents doctors discussing anything with patients when they ask or when the doctor feels it necessary. It is totally inappropriate to talk about end-of-life issues with a woman just diagnosed with breast cancer.”
Advocates for disability rights, such as the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers and the California Disability Alliance are also opposed to the bill. “This bill may appear to be just about imparting information, but in fact, it would encourage many patients to see themselves as terminal long before that truly is the case. The supposed benefits of this bill are far outweighed by the risks it poses, especially to our most vulnerable citizens,” according to letters those organizations filed with the California Senate.
Koch deals with her chronic pain through prayer. “When having a bad day of more pain, I say ‘Sacred Heart of Jesus, I give my life to you,’” she said. “That helps. It brings calmness and peace. I do feel it helps me forget about my pain. It’s amazing how it does that, but it does.”
In regard to a person choosing his own death, she said, “I remember Jesus says, ‘Take up our cross every day.’ I believe that. And I don’t take the easy way out. I want to be with Jesus when I leave here — I don’t want to be somewhere else.”
Robin Rohr writes from