Editor’s Note: To learn more about ABX2-15, to view frequently asked questions about the new law and to review talking points concerning its impact, click here.
Orange County Catholics are joining individuals and organizations statewide in working to gather signatures for a ballot proposition to overturn California’s new law allowing physician-assisted suicide. To qualify for next year’s election, 365,800 signatures must be submitted by Jan. 4, 2016.
One of the leaders of the referendum filed Oct. 20 by Dr. Mark Hoffman and Seniors Against Suicide is Stephanie Packer, a terminally ill mother of four who lives in Orange and is an outspoken advocate for the rights of vulnerable patients.
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“Gov. Jerry Brown failed California in a big way when he signed ABX2-15,” Packer said. “It’s sad for people facing terminal illness now and for those later on, and for people with disabilities concerned about what their future might hold.”
Packer said she particularly is disturbed that the law, originally known as SB 128 and pulled from consideration in July by the Assembly Health Committee, was reconsidered and quickly passed in a special session. As a result, she said, lawmakers did not have time to consider the complex financial, medical, ethical and public policy questions involved in terminal illness and end-of-life care.
“It felt so wrong for an issue of this magnitude to be rushed into law that way,” she said. “An issue this important should never have gone through the way it did. So many patients out there don’t agree with this, so many terminally ill people are fighting to live and can’t travel to give their testimony. The referendum will give them the opportunity to vote from their homes.”
If passed, the referendum will not create a law or ensure that there can be no law dealing with this issue, Packer noted. “It just gives us another chance to give people a real voice and a chance to educate people about the issue. The people of this state should have a say in things and use their voice. Our system should be about that.”
Ned Dolejsi, Executive Director of the California Catholic Conference, said the new law has great moral significance. “It indicates the shifting dynamics of health care in the state, in which people are invited to take their own lives,” he said. In fact, the Catholic Church teaches that human life is a gift from God that all people have a duty to preserve. Assisted suicide stands in contradiction to the Catholic understanding that all life bears God’s image and has inherent dignity.
Nationally, the Patients’ Rights Action Fund provides financial and strategic support throughout the U.S. to protect the rights of patients and people with disabilities by opposing assisted suicide legalization efforts. J.J. Hanson, the fund’s president, is a terminal brain cancer survivor who was once given four months to live and has fought since May 2014 to oppose legalized assisted suicide.
“I understand that this issue is very emotional for people and very personal,” Hanson said. “I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot about it. I understand on a logical level about how this is dangerous for our country. As you provide people with information and facts, people agree that this is dangerous.”
Unlike proponents’ insistence that assisted suicide is about an individual’s choice, Hanson explained, legalization greatly impacts more than the patient. “When people talk about ‘choice’ it needs to be understood that this has a lasting impact on our society,” he said. “My personal choice can negatively impact you, hurt the future of your children and family – and that is fundamentally wrong. For those who are vulnerable and most in need of our support, utilization of that term ‘choice’ is dangerous.”
Physicians opposed to the law fear that it will be abused. Dr. Ezekiel Emmanuel, a longtime adviser to President Obama, has studied the experience with legalized assisted death in the Netherlands and found widespread abuse. “The Netherlands studies fail to demonstrate that permitting physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia will not lead to the non-voluntary euthanasia of children, the demented, the mentally ill, the old and others,” Emmanuel wrote in The Atlantic. “Indeed, the persistence of abuse and the violation of safeguards, despite publicity and condemnation, suggest that the feared consequences of legalization are exactly its inherent consequences.”
Closer to home, Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, a UC Irvine Health psychiatrist whose clinical interests include medical ethics, wrote in the October issue of Southern Medical Journal that overall suicide rates in states where physician-assisted suicide is legal increased by a total of 6.5 percent. In individuals older than 65 years, the rate increased by 14.5 percent.
“You do not discourage suicide by assisting suicide,” Kheriaty wrote, noting that the theory of social phenomena suggests that legalization and the resulting media attention to the practice could inspire clusters of copycat cases in vulnerable populations.
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“This law is corrosive to the practice of medicine,” Kheriaty said in a recent interview. “It permits physicians to do the opposite of what medicine is supposed to do. It’s a form of medical abandonment in response to the cries for help from people suffering from potentially reversible conditions. We are misreading their requests for suicide.”
From his own experiences counseling seriously ill patients, he noted that suicide is often an impulsive and ambivalent act. “Studies show that when we get patients through this difficult period, they are grateful – even if at the time they didn’t want our treatment and assistance.”
Orange County Catholics who want to join in the referendum effort may pick up petitions for signatures at the Diocese of Orange Pastoral Center at 13280 Chapman Ave., Garden Grove. More information is available at the Diocese website, www.rcbo.org. For a complete list of resources on the subject, click here.