SACRAMENTO, Calif.—Physician-assisted suicide and full-range “health centers” on school grounds won’t be approved this year, following a grass-roots, pro-life lobbying effort.

Pro-lifers feared that if the two California Assembly bills allowing suicide and the health centers were passed into law, they would have become models copied elsewhere in the country.

“I attribute the non-approval of these bills absolutely to a statewide awakening and a response by the public in their respective legislative districts,” said Bob Cielnicky, president of Life Priority Network, a statewide organization which coordinates public action on bills affecting life.

Assembly leaders decided not to bring the bills to a vote after a rash of phone calls, letters and e-mails helped ensure that a majority of the legislature would vote against the bills.

“It took legislators from both parties to stop these two dangerous bills,” Cielnicky noted. “Legislators are listening to their constituents.”

The so-called Death with Dignity Act was introduced by Assemblywoman Dion Aroner, a Democrat, at the initiation of the Americans for Death with Dignity. This bill authorized terminally ill adults who meet certain qualifications to request medication for suicide.

The bill was strongly opposed by the California Medical Association, as well as by hospices, hospitals, the California bishops, pro-life groups and many others.

The medical association emphasized that suicide is rarely a rational decision, but is most often associated with depression, other disorders, or pain. In 1997 and 1998, the Assembly approved two bills granting patients liberal access to a plethora of pain medication, undercutting an oft-used “death with dignity” argument about untreatable pain.

‘Fuzzy Language’

Hans Hemann, press secretary for Assemblywoman Aroner, said the legislator believes a terminally ill person should have a suicide option. “The polls showed over 75% thought people should have the right to end their life if they were within their last few months,” Hemann said.

But opponents say this figure contrasts sharply with the groundswell of opposition to the measure, and to a 1992 vote in which California voters rejected by a margin of 54% to 46% a similar measure, Proposition 161.

“The poll was deceptive,” said Carol Hogan, communications director for the California Catholic Conference. “Fuzzy language was used to blur the issue. For example, ‘pain medication’ rather than ‘lethal injection’ was used throughout. And participants in the poll were routinely asked if they supported physician-assisted dying, not physician-assisted suicide. Who would argue with having your physician assist in the natural dying process?”

Republican Assemblyman Bill Leonard credited the California Catholic bishops' office lobbyists with impacting this year's debate.

“The Catholic Conference did a very good job of lobbying all Catholic members to try to have us vote against it,” Leonard said. “It's a bad policy for the state of California to allow physicians to terminate the life of a patient. It puts the physician in a conflict-of-interest position; he takes an oath to defend and heal life, not to destroy it.”

Back Next Year?

While the bill may be dead for now, the issue is not. Assemblywoman Aroner was made chair of the Select Committee on Palliative Care. “We will use that forum to look at all issues of end of life care, including hospice, end of life and physician-assisted dying,” explained her press secretary, Hemann, who said Aroner's office plans to reintroduce the bill next year.

California Catholic Conference's Hogan explained that the committee analysis on the bill was very distorted. “This issue was struck down in the U.S. Supreme Court, but you would never know that from reading the bill analysis,” she explained.

Life Priority Network's Cielnicky added that Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat, worked closely with Aroner to restructure committee membership in order to speed the bill through two committees and onto the Assembly floor for a vote, which was never taken. Cielnicky and Hogan expect similar maneuvering when the bill is reintroduced next year.

“We [the coalition of opponents] have done some pro-active things on this issue,” said Hogan. “For example, the Hospice Association is sponsoring a bill to create an 800-number for people to call with end of life issues. People don’t know what options are available to them, especially in a crisis situation.” The state would be mandated to print up brochures, for display in every physician's office statewide, informing the public about end-of-life care issues and the 800-number.

School Health Centers

State Senate Bill 566, initiated by the Los Angeles Unified School District and introduced by Democratic state Sen. Martha Escutia, would have allowed “health centers” to be placed on school grounds, offering a full range of health and reproductive services, including abortion referrals, to schoolchildren, ultimately without parental notification.

According to Suzanne Wierbinski, chief of staff for Escutia, amendments reduced the measure to merely a request for funds to have the state's Department of Health Services “look into what can be established for school districts who chose to hook up with Healthy Families,” a state-run insurance program for children of low-income families, funded by federal matching dollars.

“It's hard to reach poor parents to sign up for this program, especially among the Latino communities,” said Wierbinski. “Our goal is to have a school district get reimbursed, through Healthy Families or [other state monies], for services they are already providing.”

Assemblyman Leonard said the bill was written in such a way that school districts could authorize medical services — including mental health and reproductive services — without parents being aware of it.

“That's just wrong,” he said. “We're responsible for our children, not some administrator. There was no parental control.”

But Catholic teaching is opposed to euthanasia, abortion and contraception. Pope John Paul II, in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), quotes the Second Vatican Council:

“‘Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful self-destruction ... all these things and others like them are infamies indeed. They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practice them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator’” (No. 3).

Cielnicky of Life Priority Network said both defeated measures were attacks against life at its earliest and later stages.

In the health care centers bill, he observed, “young, frightened pregnant girls could be counseled for an abortion without their parents even knowing — resulting in the death of an innocent child, along with other ramifications. In [the suicide bill], the end of life was threatened by allowing physician-assisted suicide, resulting in the killing of innocent elderly or infirm human beings. One need only look to Holland to see what this will do.”

Karen Walker is based in San Juan Capistrano, California.