Will California’s Assisted-Suicide Law Lead to Abuse?

The Golden State’s former seminarian/governor signed the End of Life Option Act into law on Oct. 5, to the dismay of pro-life groups and organizations for the disabled.

California Gov. Jerry Brown signs a bill in March 2015.
California Gov. Jerry Brown signs a bill in March 2015. (photo: Facebook/Gerry Brown)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — With the stroke of his pen, former Jesuit seminarian Jerry Brown made California the sixth state to allow physician-assisted suicide.

The California governor signed the End of Life Option Act on Oct. 5 to allow doctors to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients.

In a letter to state lawmakers, Brown said that he considered the arguments on both sides, including the “theological and religious perspectives” that suicide is sinful, but the Democrat governor said he ultimately decided to sign the bill after reflecting on what he would want when faced with his own death.

“I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain,” Brown wrote. “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.”

Opponents of the law, which include California’s Catholic bishops, as well as psychiatrists, bioethicists, advocates for the elderly and disabled and pro-life leaders, faulted Brown for approving a law based on his own beliefs instead of the common good of all Californians, especially those who could be coerced into ending their lives.


‘Selfish and Shortsighted’

“Gov. Brown has purchased the right to assisted suicide at the expense of the disabled, the marginalized, the poor and the elderly. Shame on him for being so selfish and shortsighted,” said O. Carter Snead, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame and former general counsel to the President’s Council on Bioethics.

Snead told the Register that the poor and disadvantaged who do not have the same access to quality health care as the governor will be disproportionately impacted by physician-assisted suicide. Voicing a common concern, Snead worried that terminally ill elders, many of them suffering from depression and already vulnerable to abuse, could be pressured into shortening their lives.

“We’ll see new forms of elder abuse,” Snead said. “The idea that this new right, if you will, won’t become a tool in the arsenal of elder abuse is, I think, naive.”

Tim Rosales, a spokesman for Californians Against Assisted Suicide, a coalition of doctors, disability-rights activists, religious leaders and others who opposed the measure, told the Register that the coalition is looking at all possible options, including legal challenges and a voter referendum to overturn the law.

“California got caught up in a lot of the hype,” Rosales said. “A lot of other states that have had the chance to dig deep, to look at the real implications of a policy like this and how it affects their people, have rejected this.”

Compassion & Choices, the organization formerly known as the Hemlock Society, championed the California law as part of a massive national campaign, in which the organization is pushing similar legislation in 27 states, including Washington, D.C.

Until California, only the state legislatures in Washington, Oregon and Vermont had enacted statutes providing for assisted suicide. In New Mexico and Montana, court decisions allow for physician-assisted suicide in some cases.


Brittany Maynard

Compassion & Choices launched its national campaign on Nov. 19, 2014, on what would have been Brittany Maynard’s 30th birthday. Maynard, a California woman diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, moved to Oregon last year to take advantage of that state’s “Death With Dignity Law.” Before ending her life, Maynard partnered with Compassion & Choices to create a fund to aid the national effort to legalize assisted suicide.

“It was like a made-for-TV movie. They found the perfect, attractive candidate. She became the face of the campaign,” said Rosales, adding that Compassion & Choices spent almost $5 million in California.

“That was probably the most significant difference, the resources and money they brought to bear in California,” Rosales said.

Judie Brown, president and co-founder of the American Life League, a national Catholic pro-life organization, said she knew the Maynard case would be the “final nail in the coffin” for the resistance to assisted suicide in California.

Brown, who resides in Palm Springs, Calif., with her husband, said the “deck has been stacked” for several years in California against those who fight the culture of death.

Said Brown, “I’m not at all surprised that the bill passed through the legislature and not at all surprised that Gov. Brown signed it.”

The California Legislature passed the End of Life Option Act on Oct. 2, which was the last day of a special legislative session on health-care financing issues. The governor signed the bill three days later.

“The bill didn’t go through the normal committee process. It didn’t receive the kind of scrutiny it would have received in a normal legislative session,” said Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, a psychiatrist and director of the program in medical ethics at the University of California-Irvine. Kheriaty, who opposed the measure, told the Register that the bill previously stalled in the state assembly’s health committee.

Kheriaty also said he is concerned that terminally ill people who suffer from reversible and treatable mental disorders, such as clinical depression, will be coerced into ending their lives. He said those people will likely experience subtle pressure from relatives and others that availing themselves of physician-assisted suicide is a responsible option that will spare themselves and their loved ones unnecessary suffering and expensive medical treatment.


Pandora’s Box

“This opens up a Pandora’s box that will be impossible to control,” said Kheriaty, who rejects the argument that assisted suicide is a matter of individual autonomy. He said that view ignores larger societal impacts.

“It impacts the profession of medicine and the attitudes of physicians who treat individuals at the end of life,” Kheriaty said. “It also impacts other individuals who may choose to act on suicidal impulses. I worry that too little attention has been paid to the research we have on the social impact of these laws. People are not looking at the big picture.”

Bill May, president and founder of the San Francisco-based Catholics for the Common Good Institute, told the Register that the assisted-suicide law is a manifestation of what Pope Francis has described as a “throwaway culture.”

“This is another attack on the family,” May said. “This law is a coercive influence on those who are seen as burdens because of illness. They are told they should end their lives early so as not to be a burden to their relatives, that they are not worthy of love and tender care.”

In its 1980 “Declaration on Euthanasia,” the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith addressed the need to provide authentic help and love to terminally ill people.

The congregation wrote: “The pleas of gravely ill people who sometimes ask for death are not to be understood as implying a true desire for euthanasia; in fact, it is almost always a case of an anguished plea for help and love. What a sick person needs, besides medical care, is love, the human and supernatural warmth with which the sick person can and ought to be surrounded by [from] all those close to him or her, parents and children, doctors and nurses.”

In a joint statement, the Catholic bishops of California said the assisted-suicide law “stands in direct contradiction to providing compassionate, quality care for those facing a terminal illness.”


Cardinal O’Malley

Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, who serves as the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, said in a prepared statement that Gov. Brown’s decision to sign the assisted-suicide law was a “great tragedy for human life,” a tragedy “compounded by confusion among those who supported this law.”

Said Cardinal O’Malley: “I am sure the Catholic Church in this country will redouble efforts to protect innocent life at its most vulnerable stages and to promote palliative care and other real solutions for the problems and hardships of terminally ill patients and their families.”

Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.