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July 13, 2015   •   VOL. 53, NO. 13   •   Oakland, CA
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Assisted-suicide bill withdrawn for this year

Legislation that would have legalized physician-assisted suicide in the state of California has been withdrawn from consideration this year.

Although the bill passed the state Senate last month, it was stalled in the Assembly Health Committee. It was withdrawn by its authors before an expected vote by that committee on July 7.

Catholic groups were among those that advocated vigorously against the legislation.

The California Catholic Conference issued this statement: "We are very pleased at the outcome and grateful for the hard work done by the assembled coalition at Californians Against Assisted Suicide. The physicians, health care workers, disabled advocates, religious groups and others who came together to oppose the bill was key to the success of the campaign and we are proud to have played a role in that long-standing coalition."

Among the Catholic leaders who opposed the legislation was Oakland Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, who said in a statement last month, "The sick, elderly and dying deserve our love and support until the moment God calls them to Himself. They deserve better than killing, whether at the hands of their physician, or by their own hands."

In addition to phone calls and emails, opponents made personal visits to legislators and their staffs. In Oakland, the message was carried June 22 by a physician and chaplain who specializes in palliative care, two priests and the diocesan social justice coordinator to staff members of East Bay Assembly member Tony Thurmond, who is a member of that Assembly Health Committee.

Mary Nicely, district director for Thurmond, D-Oakland, heard from Dr. LaVera Crawley, a medical doctor who serves as palliative care chaplain at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center, Rev. Aidan McAleenan of St. Columba Church in Oakland, Rev. Ramiro Flores of St. Mark Church in Richmond, and John Watkins, from the diocese.

A doctor's prescription for death-inducing drugs "won't improve the end-of-life experience, especially for elderly patients," Crawley said.

Crawley, whose experience in palliative care goes back to 1997, said. "There's no reason for anyone to face these last moments in pain."

She called the pending legislation short-sighted. "There's so much more we can do," she said. More resources could be directed toward palliative care — which she described as a holistic approach to provide comfort and relief of suffering — including making palliative care available in public hospitals.

"I fear mostly for the poor and those who aren't covered (by insurance)," said Father McAleenan.

Father Flores, who said he has "seen so many injustices in health care," said it would be "so easy" for health care systems to push for the suicide choice after telling people, "You have no more options," he said.

If assisted suicide becomes the law in California, Father McAleenan said, "Where do we go from here? It's a slippery slope."

Thurmond had not stated his position on the pending legislation that was pulled from his committee on July 7, Nicely said.

She did say that his office received thousands of phone calls, emails and comments on its website from both supporters and opponents of the legislation.

"They do matter," Nicely said. "The thing that matters is that they are our constituents."

That outpouring mattered, too, to Watkins, who coordinates the diocesan life and justice ministry.

"I was so grateful for the enthusiastic support from the bishop, clergy and lay Catholics in defeating this bill," Watkins said. "I felt strangely confident during our legislative visits with (Assembly member Rob) Bonta and Thurmond because I knew that we were not acting alone.

"We had hundreds of Catholics from the diocese contacting Bonta and Thurmond by email and by phone and I personally heard from a number of clergy and lay Catholics who were praying intensely for our visit."

That intensive effort may be called upon once again. The measure is expected to go to next year's legislative calendar.

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