California is closer to legalizing doctor-assisted suicide.
The state Senate last week approved SB 128, “The End of Life Options Act,” which would allow doctors to prescribe drugs that terminally ill patients can take to kill themselves. The bill is now being considered by the state Assembly.
The sponsors of this legislation are well meaning. They want to return compassion and personal freedom to a health care business that has become more and more depersonalized and driven by imperatives of money and technology.
But the compassion that doctor-assisted suicide offers is hollow. And this legislation has dangerous implications for our state, especially for the poor and vulnerable.
There is no denying that in California and nationwide we face a public health crisis in the way we treat patients who are terminally ill and at the end of life. This is part of the reason why legislation similar to SB 128 is being introduced in states across the country.
People are afraid that as they get older, they are going to be forced to suffer, unable to control their pain or illnesses. They are worried about becoming dependent or dying alone in a hospital, attached to all sorts of medical devices.
These anxieties are natural and justified. We don’t want this for ourselves. And we don’t want this for the ones we love.
But the answer to fear and a broken system is to fix the system and address the fears. It is not to kill the one who is afraid and suffering.
It is a failure of public leadership and moral imagination to respond to human suffering by making it easier for people to kill themselves.
Helping someone to die — even if that person asks for that help — is still killing. And killing is not compassion, it is killing. It is responding to the needs of our neighbors with indifference, with the cold comfort of death.
The debate over doctor-assisted suicide is a distraction that is preventing us from confronting the real issues that we face in public health.
The facts are that people are living longer today, which means we are treating more frail and elderly persons and more age-related illnesses like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Also, as a society we are spending more and more of our health care resources treating people in the final months of their lives.
We need to have an honest public conversation about these issues and what they mean for how we try to provide health care to all our people.
Instead, SB 128 is pushing us into a quick-fix “solution” that involves killing the people we find too difficult, too burdensome or too expensive to care for.
The ones who will suffer will be our poor, elderly and handicapped neighbors, as well as those living in immigrant and minority communities. In a health care system driven by financial concerns, doctor-assisted suicide will not be a “choice” for these people. It will become their only “option.” In a state like California, where we have millions of people receiving government subsidized health care, the cost pressures to choose suicide over treatment will become even more urgent.
These concerns are not exaggerated. Already we have the story from Oregon, where doctor-assisted suicide is legal. A woman was denied insurance coverage for cancer treatment and in the same letter was encouraged to take suicide pills, which the insurance company said it would pay for.
This is an isolated instance. But it reflects the “logic” of doctor-assisted suicide. Once we start down this path — once we establish in law that some lives are not as valuable as others, not worth “paying for” — there will be no turning back.
The logic of doctor-assisted suicide does not stop with the terminally ill. In places where the practice is legal, we see growing pressures to extend this “right” to anyone who is suffering chronic or intolerable pain.
And once we establish that some lives are not worth living, we will find more people deciding they would be better off dead. It is tragic but true. In Oregon, there has been a dramatic rise in overall suicide rates — an increase of nearly 50 percent — since the state legalized doctor-assisted suicide.
We cannot allow California to become a place where we respond to the suffering of others by helping them to kill themselves. We must make California a vanguard of true compassion for the dying.
We need to reject this legislation and begin a new conversation about how we live and how we die in California.
Death will always be a mystery and death will never be easy — for those who are dying or for those who love them. But we can make death less painful, less frightening and we can even make it a time of beauty, mercy and reconciliation.
This is within our reach as a society. Many of those who work in hospices, geriatrics and palliative care are already doing amazing work. We need to learn from them and find ways to support their efforts.
Let’s pray for one another this week, and let’s ask our Blessed Mother Mary to help us to grow in true compassion.
For more information on SB 128 and how to contact your Assembly Member, visit ahardpill.org.