On June 9, the state of California’s new assisted suicide law will take effect. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in October, but could only be implemented 91 days after the state legislature ended its special session on healthcare.
The law, which allows patients with six months or less to live to request doctor prescribed suicide medication, led Archbishop Jose H. Gomez to write, “Helping someone to die — even if that person asks for that help — is still killing. … It is responding to the needs of our neighbors with indifference, with the cold comfort of death.”
kathleen-domingo, associate director to the archdiocesan Office of Life, Justice and Peace, says the new law places the disadvantaged, the elderly and the underinsured at greater risk of abuse.
“What we were most concerned about with assisted suicide is that it would adversely and disproportionately affect the most vulnerable in our community,” she told The Tidings.
“We are already in a state … where we have record numbers of uninsured and underinsured Californians — people who do not have access to the best medical care — and into this environment we now throw physician assisted suicide.”
She adds that already there is a bill in place to allow Medi-Cal to cover assisted suicide. “This is not as they purport — that this an issue that is only for the wealthy, the upper class, the well educated and those seeking complete autonomy in their lives; rather, it is going to most affect those who feel they have no alternative,” she says.
“It should keep all of us shaking in our boots, saying the state wants to get rid of all of us, because it’s cheaper.”
The law requires patients to take the fatal drugs themselves. A doctor may administer the drug after the patient has made two oral requests at least 15 days apart. A written request from the patient must also be witnessed by at least two people, one of which must not be a relative.
Two physician evaluations, the attending physician and a second physician must approve the diagnosis and prognosis of the patient. The two physicians must also agree on the patient’s mental competency.
Domingo notes that in Vermont, where assisted suicide is legal, a bill is being drafted with the provision “that a patient cannot receive in the same letter a termination or denial for payment of their current treatment and an encouragement to take advantage of the aid in dying law.” This bill is a clear sign, she says, that this coercion is already taking place.
Regarding the position of the Catholic Church, Domingo says, “Sickness and death frighten us because we’ve lost the ability in our culture to have empathy for people and to understand that there can be some good in pain and suffering, and that there can be something redemptive about that.”
She notes that the Church has over 2,000 years of experience in caring for the poor and the dying. “In fact,” she says, “those were [some] of the first social programs that ever appeared in the Church: taking care of widows, taking care of orphans and taking care of those at the end of life.”
The Church advocates for the necessity of proper palliative and hospice care to allow for a painless and peaceful death. “We see so many horror stories, and, honestly, the horror stories are of our own making,” she says. “Very often it is because we have not allowed people to have access to hospice care and to palliative care, and so some people do die in pain, it’s true. We have a broken medical system.”
With proper end of life care, “people don’t want to hasten their death,” she says. “The last days of someone’s life can be incredibly beautiful. It can be a time when families come together and maybe heal broken relationships that have been broken for years and years.”
She adds, “It’s very often the case where you hear anecdotal stories of people holding on at the end till maybe an estranged loved one is able to come and they are able to have some forgiveness and some healing of a relationship. These things are very important.”
The current culture of consumerism and utility has made the elderly and dying afraid of being a burden, she says. “We are able to expose that and say, ‘Look you aren’t any more of a burden than a newborn is, and yet we don’t call the newborn a burden.’”
End of life care, she says, “is a beautiful opportunity to do something wonderful for someone else — to do an act of mercy for someone else.”