National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

Assisted-Suicide Foes Cry Foul After Hasty Vote in California

BY Martha Lepore

June 20-26, 1999 Issue | Posted 6/20/99 at 2:00 PM


SACRAMENTO, Calif.—Law-makers in California have managed to push forward an assisted suicide bill by means of “bald-faced political game playing,” according to a bishops' conference official.

David Pollard, associate director of policy at the California bishops'conference, said, “It has been obvious from the beginning of the process in the Assembly that there were very strong political forces determined to move the bill through irrespective of the mind of the Assembly as a whole.”

The so-called Death with Dignity Act would allow doctors to fulfill requests by terminally ill adults for drugs to end their lives. It was publicly supported by seven organizations and opposed by 28 registered opponents, including the Western Services Workers Association and the California Medical Association.

Pollard said that Assembly hearings were marked by an unusual intensity of feeling against the bill. “Group after group of disabled people, Spanish-speaking farm workers, people from all over the state spoke against the bill and asked them to realize what they were doing when we have 7 million uninsured people and [the health care system] is setting up a way to cut costs,” he said.

Nonetheless, using California Assembly procedural rules, supporters of the measure put the bill on an “inactive list,” after it passed the judiciary committee in April and the appropriations committee in late May.

The bill can be considered again in January. Said Pollard, “There will be a flood of bills that will be trying to move before January 31,” increasing pressure to pass the controversial measure and decreasing the effectiveness of the bill's opposition.

‘There were very strong political forces determined to move the bill through irrespective of the mind of the Assembly as a whole.’

The assisted suicide bill was passed at a special session of the appropriations committee about 6 p.m. May 27, according to Carol Hogan, spokes-woman of the National Catholic Conference in Sacramento. “This occurred in spite of the fact that at about 3 p.m., the committee chair, Assemblywoman Carole Migden [a San Francisco Democrat], informed the lobbyists and media gathered in the hallway that the bill would not be taken up that day.”

“They even replaced committee members with other [legislators] who would be more likely to vote their way,” Pollard said.

Hogan said that the maneuverings were done to accommodate the bill's authors, Dion Aroner, D-Berkeley, and John Longville, D-Rialto, and to ensure its passage through the committees.

Aroner's office defended the procedures used to pass the bill. A spokesman for his office, Hans Hemann, said Migden's announcement of a truncated debate and vote was unexpected.

“We were surprised, too, that it wouldn't be heard,” Hemann said. “We were then told that we could get a rule waiver for the bill to be heard on Monday, since the Republican leadership didn't want it to be heard on Friday. But then the Republicans blocked the rule waiver for Monday. Believing we had the votes to pass [the bill] that day, we convinced the leadership to put the bill back on the Thursday evening agenda, along with about 20 other bills.”

Hemann added that decisions about the schedule of committee meetings and rule waivers are made at the leadership level between Assembly Democrats and Republicans, not committee members.

One strong opponent of the bill is Dr. Joanne Lynn, president of Americans for Better Care of the Dying in Washington, D.C.

“We must change the health care system — not make it easier to ‘choose’ to be dead,” said Lynn, who is an authority on quality improvement for terminal care. “Assisted suicide is a sideshow that is taking our attention away from urgently needed health-care reform. Seriously ill people should be confident of having a comfortable and meaningful time as their lives come to a close.”

A May 26 editorial in the Los Angeles Times pointed out that the California proposal “does far too little to ensure that patients have an essential right: to get quality end-of-life care. Ensuring that right is a task state legislators must face first.”

This view reflects the teaching of the Catholic Church that “the dying should be given attention and care to help them live their last moments in dignity and peace” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2299).

Dr. Christina Puchalski, an assistant professor at George Washington University School of Medicine and a nationally known proponent on the role of spirituality in health and in end-of-life care, questioned what the Death with Dignity Act would do to doctor-patient relations.

“I've taken the Hippocratic Oath to help people cope with their suffering, not to end their lives,” she told the Register. “I think this act would cause a major shift, a very unhealthy shift, in the doctor-patient relationship. The act is not about compassionate care giving, but rather a technical way to avoid caring for those in pain and depression,” said Puchalski.

She recommended looking at the other problems of the terminally ill. “We need to question how much money health care organizations are spending on the futile prolonging of life with technology and how much money could be spent to improve palliative care for dying patients, to give them good quality of life at the end and help them to find meaning,” Puchalski said.

She added, “My hope for the future is that spiritually assisted deaths will be just as common as physically assisted births are today.”

Said Pollard of the Assembly's maneuverings, “It is a total disregard of the normal process which is meant to be an honest-to-God discussion and voting process, deliberated, weighed and balanced and leading to an objective vote. That simply hasn't happened.”

Martha Lepore is based in Coronado, California.