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Is Assisted Suicide Inevitable after California’s Decision?

anique CC

John Burger - published on 10/26/15 - updated on 06/07/17

States gearing up for renewed fight over the issue after Gov. Brown signature

When the most populous state in the nation legalized physician-assisted suicide this month, the leading proponents of the practice certainly played it up as a major win. And media reports speculated that enactment of the law will have a ripple effect on other states.

But opponents of assisted suicide are not about to roll over and play dead.

“Compassion & Choices definitely feels emboldened. They’ve added 17 campaign states to their map,” said Peter Wolfgang, head of the Family Institute of Connecticut, where a similar proposal was defeated in committee for the past three years. “But in the last 20 years there have been more than 175 attempts to legalize physician-assisted suicide in more than 35 states. California is only their fourth success, and they got that by ramming it through in a special session.”

Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, worries that passage of the bill in such a large and influential state might be seen as “some kind of major endorsement,” even though it “had to be passed by a kind of subterfuge and misuse of the legislative process.”

But Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the London, Ontario-based Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, pointed out that California is “not a done deal yet,” that opponents still have a chance to put the newly passed bill up to a public referendum and turn it back.

Indeed, opponents of the “Aid-in-Dying” bill, ABX2 15, which Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown signed Oct. 5, received permission last week to begin gathering signatures to qualify a referendum to overturn it, Secretary of State Alex Padilla announced.

“It is wrong for our collective response to the depression and emotional pain that follows a terminal diagnosis to offer suicide as the treatment,” said Stephanie Packer, who is leading the referendum effort, as reported by

Opponents need to collect signatures equaling 5% of the total votes cast for governor in the 2014 general election and to submit them by Jan. 4. That means that 365,880 valid signatures would be needed to put the measure on the ballot in November 2016.

Of the 17 states being especially targeted by Compassion & Choices, an organization that was once known as the Hemlock Society, are liberal-leaning New York, Massachusetts and Maryland, as well as New Jersey, the only state where a bill passed one house but stalled in the second chamber. Massachusetts defeated assisted suicide by referendum a few years ago, but the margin was quite slim.

“We are gearing up for a legislative battle,” said Kathleen Gallagher, director of pro-life activities at the New York State Catholic Conference in Albany. “There are two equally dangerous bills that have been introduced in the New York State Legislature.”

One concern the Catholic Conference has about the bills is that they would “blur longstanding medical, moral and legal distinctions between withdrawing extraordinary medical assistance and taking active steps to destroy human life. One lets people die a natural death; the other is the deliberate and direct act of hastening death.”

The Conference has a new ally, however. J. J. Hanson, who last year was diagnosed with the same kind of brain tumore Brittany Mayard had, is now president of the Patients Rights Action Fund, a group opposing assisted suicide efforts nationally. Maynard, a young California woman who was suffering from glioblastoma, moved to Oregon last year and took her life under that state’s law allowing assisted suicide.

“New York is a key area where we’re going to fight and try to defend and not allow this to become the social norm,” Hanson, who at one time supported the Death With Dignity movement, told the New York Daily News. “When New Yorkers fully understand the impact of assisted suicide and what this can do, they may not necessarily look at it in the same light.”

Fully understanding the impact is key, and pro-life activists point out that proposals like this have a difficult time making it through the legislative process.

“Legislatures tend to go against it, especially if you provide hearings, because then you suddenly realize that there’s something more to this,” said Schadenberg.

The California bill had been defeated earlier this year, when it went through the normal process. But it passed during a special session that had been called to consider a different concern.

“They got it through basically using a procedure that should not have been used in that manner to overturn the opposition they had in their committee,” Schadenberg said. “The only way to do that was to reform the committee, and they did that during this special session. This also denied people the opportunity to speak about it because it all went very quickly.”

What defeated it originally was the Democrats who joined the Republicans, who received a great many calls and letters from constituents, especially Hispanics, who said, ‘We’re fighting to get access to health care. Why should this be the first right that the state is perfectly willing to give to us in the health care arena?'” Doerflinger summed up. “That’s an indication of where this issue should go. It should not be a liberal versus conservative thing. This should be a concern of any lawmaker who is concerned with social justice, the rights of the poor and vulnerable. It is being promoted generally by affluent white people who have plenty of resources who believe this should just be an additional choice for them, while for many people in the underclass of society it might end up being the only choice poeple are presenting them.”

Doerflinger is not the only advocate to recognize the importance of forming coalitions across the aisle on this issue. Many observers point to Connecticut’s recent history of killing a physician-assisted suicide proposal in committee three years in a row.

We need to follow the lead of what has occurred in Connecticut, where the coalition has worked very closely with people with disabilities. They have rallied people from all walks of life to oppose assisted suicide and they have put the disability folks in the front of the opposition,” Schadenberg observed. 

Wolfgang explained that the coalition has included people who are in favor of same-sex marriage and abortion, but also people with disabilities and those working to fight elder abuse, which are key concerns about any attempt to permit assisted suicide.

“These are people on the political left because they understand that assisted suicide is bad public policy that puts vulnerable populations at risk,” he said. “Those of us on the pro-family right and our friends on the disability rights side of the progressive left have formed a very unusual alliance. We’ve agreed to disagree on other issues. But we’re gathered around a common cause to make sure we don’t have a law that licenses doctors to prescribe suicide as a treatment for people with disabilities and to the elderly.”

John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.

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