LETTER TO HON. ROB BONTA, CALIFORNIA STATE ASSEMBLY, COMMITTEE ON HEALTH REGARDING SB 128

By Archbishop Gomez
June 16, 2011

Dear Chairman Bonta,

On behalf of the Catholic people of Los Angeles, I am writing to ask respectfully that your Committee on Health reject S.B. 128, “The End of Life Options Act.”

As you know, the Catholic Church has a long and rich history of providing health care and hospice services, especially to immigrants, minorities and other underserved peoples in our community. And based on this experience, I believe this legislation has dangerous implications for our state, especially for the poor and the most vulnerable.

As I see it, the sponsors of this legislation are well meaning. I understand their desire to return compassion and personal freedom to the health care business, which in recent years has become more and more depersonalized and driven by imperatives of money and technology.

I also understand the legitimate fears that many people have about terminal illness and chronic pain, especially at the end of life. They are afraid of being forced to suffer and they are afraid of being unable to control their pain or illnesses. They are also 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.

This legislation is not worthy of our great State, which has done so much to promote human dignity and equality of access to health care. We cannot allow California to become a place where we respond to human suffering by simply making it easier for people to kill themselves. Helping someone to die — even if that person is desperate and asks for that help — is still killing. It is responding to the needs of our neighbors with indifference, with the cold comfort of death.

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. But if we choose the path of legalizing physician assisted suicide, we will never make the investments that we need to make in medical training, geriatrics, palliative-care research and other areas that would truly improve the compassionate care of terminally ill patients and those at the end of life.

S.B. 128 is pushing us into a quick-fix “solution” that involves killing the people we find too difficult, too burdensome or too expensive to take care of. If we legalize this practice, the ones who will suffer will be our poor, elderly and handicapped neighbors, as well as those living in immigrant and minority communities.

There are numerous studies that document how African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans and other minorities already receive less access to quality medicines and nursing homes, and lower-quality care in areas such as pain assessment, cancer treatment, and palliative and end of life care.

You and your colleagues in the California legislature have done a great deal to address racial and economic inequalities and disparities in our health system. I am afraid that legalizing physician- assisted suicide would reverse these noble efforts and result in new injustices.

These concerns are not exaggerated or hypothetical. 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. In a for-profit health care system driven by financial concerns, doctor-assisted suicide will not be a “choice” for minorities, the poor, and those without health care. It will become their only “option.” In a state like California, where we have millions without insurance, and millions more receiving government subsidized health care, the cost pressures to promote suicide over treatment will become even more urgent.

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 here in California. Many of those who work in our hospices, in geriatrics and palliative care are already doing amazing work. We need to learn from them and find ways to support their efforts.

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.

I also worry that in promoting suicide as a government policy, we will be sending a dangerous signal and undoing so much of the good work that we have done as a society in trying to prevent suicide among our teenagers and those suffering depression and mental illness.

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. So I urge you and your colleagues to reject this legislation and begin a new conversation about how we live and how we die in California.

Thank you for considering this request and I am grateful for your public service to the people of our great State of California. Please do not hesitate to contact me or my assistant, Andrew Rivas ([email protected], 213-637-7306) to discuss this issue further.

May God grant you peace,

Most Reverend José H. Gomez

Archbishop of Los Angeles

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