Support ebbs for suicide bill
Ed LangloisAs Jack Kevorkian emerges from eight years in prison for helping a Michigan patient kill himself, support seems to be waning in California for an Oregon-style assisted-suicide bill.
Despite backing from the Speaker of the California Assembly, who is Catholic, the proposed legislation faces an uncertain future in that chamber and even more challenges in the California Senate. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is likely to veto the bill if it ever gets to his desk. An Assembly panel OK’d the bill last month.
“We have a good solid foundation of legislators who oppose this legislation for a number of reasons,” says Tim Rosales, spokesman for Californians Against Assisted Suicide. “We are cautiously optimistic we can defeat it again this year.”
As they did in Oregon a decade ago, supporters of legalizing assisted suicide have attempted to cast the debate as the Catholic Church against personal freedom. The California coalition has worked hard to avert that defense, showing the breadth and depth of opposition.
“The moral argument is only one of many arguments that can be made,” Rosales says.
Also lined up in opposition are disabilities rights groups, a senior living center, a large Latino association, a doctors’ group and a service workers’ union.
Walter Park, a San Francisco man with AIDS, testified against Assembly Bill 374, saying that he was told 12 years ago that he had only a year to live.
With a suicide law in place, Park says, he may have succumbed to social forces and despair back then.
“I already feel the unspoken pressure not to burden my family with the costs of end of life care,” Park says.
Barry McEhlone, who has Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS, told opponents of assisted suicide that along with such a diagnosis comes “depression and extreme vulnerability.”
McEhlone said that he, too, has far outlasted his diagnosis.
Paul Longmore, director of the Institute on Disability Studies at San Francisco State University, doubts that assisted suicide could be incorporated into health care in an equitable way.
“Inevitably, disabled people, older people, minorities, would be implicitly pressured to end their lives,” says Longmore. “The health care system does not want to pay for them.”
Longmore notes that, in Oregon, while assisted suicide is legal, funding for in-home support services has been cut.
“You can’t look at assisted suicide in isolation from general trends in health care,” Longmore explains. “Medicaid is being gutted, people’s expectations about end-of-life care are being lowered. This comes down to matters of economic and social justice.”
The church in California, for its part, has turned to educating Catholics on the issue, aware that members of the church tend to vote along with the general public on most issues.
Parishes have received fact sheets and ethical guidelines like one written by a seminary teacher turned hospital chaplain.
“Authentic freedom does not exist without the truth,” writes Sulpician Father Gerald Coleman in his widely distributed seven-point explanation of church-teaching on assisted suicide. “The truth in this matter is the inherent dignity of every person, made in the image of God. Physician-assisted suicide denies this truth by advocating self-inflicted death with the help of a physician. Physician-assisted suicide denies the dignity of the human person.”
Father Coleman wrote that those who support doctor-assisted suicide mistakenly believe that “terminally ill people who are experiencing great pain no longer have personal dignity and that death is the solution to that problem.”
“It’s a slow process educating our Catholics,” says Carol Hogan, executive director of the Oregon Catholic Conference. “But we know they tend to follow the advice of their pastor.”
In Michigan, the church criticized the media hype surrounding Kevorkian’s release.
“For 10 years, Jack Kevorkian’s actions resembled those of a pathological serial killer,” said Ned McGrath, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Detroit. “It will be truly regrettable if he’s now treated as a celebrity parolee, instead of the convicted murderer he is.”
Kevorkian, a former pathologist who says he helped about 130 people kill themselves, has vowed not to use his suicide machine any longer. Officials say they will keep a close eye on the sickly, 79-year-old man.
But Michigan Right to Life issued a statement expressing suspicion about the “uncontrolled, unethical and unlicensed physician.”
Seen as an odd character even before he hit the national scene, Kevorkian was seen as a mix of Liberace and the Phantom of the Opera in the Michigan town where he lived in an apartment over a storefront.
He found himself behind bars after he taunted the judicial system in Michigan to put him away by showing a video of him euthanizing a patient on national television.
In Oregon, supporters of assisted suicide are seeking to distance themselves from Kevorkian.
“We don’t need Jack Kevorkians in Oregon. We have a sane, responsible, rational public policy,” Barbara Lee told Oregon Public Broadcasting. Lee is one of the authors of Oregon’s assisted-suicide law.