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Assisted suicide law repeal sought

November 19, 2015
Valerie Schmalz

The bishops of California are supporting a signature-gathering campaign to place on the November 2016 ballot a referendum to overturn the state’s physician-assisted suicide law.

“The California bishops as a group are supporting the signature-gathering campaign to place the referendum on the ballot,” said Steve Pehanich, director of communication and advocacy for the California Catholic Conference.

The Knights of Columbus are coordinating the parish-based effort in California.

“This is the Roe v. Wade of our time,” said Mark Padilla, chairman of Culture of Life for Knights of Columbus in California.

Kick off of the parish signature-gathering efforts varied by diocese, with the Diocese of Orange and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in Southern California beginning signature gathering on Christ the King Sunday while the Diocese of Santa Rosa, north of San Francisco, was to begin collecting signatures at the parishes the first two weekends in December. The Archdiocese of San Francisco was planning to start in December, said Vicki Evans, respect life coordinator.

The petition to collect signatures for a referendum to repeal the law was filed with the California secretary of state by a non-sectarian group founded by psychologist Mark Hoffman, Seniors Against Assisted Suicide, on Oct. 6 the day after Gov. Jerry Brown signed the assisted-suicide bill (ABx2-15) into law. If successful, the referendum would be on the November 2016 ballot.

In general the California bishops wait until a petition has qualified for the ballot before taking action, but have made an exception in this case, said Kathleen Buckley Domingo, associate director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace for the Los Angeles archdiocese.

“A lot of people are underinsured or uninsured in California,” Domingo said, saying poor people will be victimized by this law and could be coerced. “For them assisted suicide is always going to be the cheapest option.”

The number of verified signatures required to be submitted to the secretary of state by Jan. 4 is 365,880, said Stephanie Packer, who became a spokesperson for the campaign against assisted suicide after hearing about the legislation last January.

Packer is terminally ill with scleroderma, on oxygen 24 hours a day and receiving nutrition through a PICC line because the scarring disease affects her lungs. She is married with four young children and received her terminal diagnosis in 2012.

“It’s easy to become consumed when you first become sick and when you first realize you are dying. It is really easy to become depressed,” said Packer, who is in her early 30s. “Once you get that new normal then you can start to find beauty in every single day in every moment. You start to appreciate everything. You go beyond happiness and you become joyful. Even on those awful days when you triple your pain medicine and you are still in pain.”

Measures to legalize physician-assisted suicide have been attempted more than 100 times but have succeed in only four states, Washington, Oregon, Vermont and now California. In Montana, the state Supreme Court ruled that physician “aid in dying” is not against public policy, a ruling that protects doctors against litigation.

The California End of Life Options Act allows a physician to prescribe a lethal dose of narcotics to someone who is diagnosed with a terminal illness and given a prognosis of six months to live. It was introduced in an August special legislative session called to address health care costs after a similar bill, SB 128, stalled in Assembly committee during the regular session.

Under California’s law, after the required two-week waiting period following a terminal diagnosis, the patient can write or phone to get the assisted suicide prescription and the dose can be sent via mail to the patient. There are no safeguards as to who accepts the package or whether the ill or disabled person ingests the medication through his or her own will or is given it by someone else. The two witnesses can be an employee of the nursing home and an heir or relative, under the law. The cause of death is listed as the underlying illness, not assisted suicide.

The coalition opposing physician-assisted suicide includes a variety of religious and non-religious organizations, including the American College of Pediatricians, the American Nursing Association, Not Dead Yet and ARC of California. Some opponents are listed at stopassistedsuicide.com.

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