Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
Will Jerry Brown, the famously idiosyncratic governor of the Golden State, sign or veto the assisted suicide bill passed by the state legislature on Sept. 11?
Brown has not signaled his position on the issue. But he has criticized the legislature's end run around the normal process for vetting and debating legislation -- especially a bill that will mark a radical break with how California physicians have approached end of life care.
The bill's opponents hope Brown will take a dim view of the legislature's decision to set aside a critical discussion about a looming problem with healthcare for the poor in order to fasttrack an assisted suicide bill -- not the most reassuring message to low-income patients.
Earlier this summer, the effort to pass a bill modeled on Oregon's "aid in dying" law stalled after a handful of state assembly members on the health committee said it could pose a threat to patients who are elderly, disabled or from minority groups that depend on subsidized healthcare.
But after Brown called a special session to address an expected $1 billion shortfall in funding next year for Medi-Cal, a healthcare program for the poor, Democratic leaders in both houses quickly brought the bill back and got it passed. The special session allows lawmakers to bypass normal procedures for evaluating legislation.
But will Brown sign it?
"Brown, a former Jesuit seminarian, has declined to state a position on the measure. His office released a statement last month criticizing the use of a special legislative session to advance the bill outside of the normal legislative process," reported the Sacramento Bee.
Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, who reached out to lawmakers to express his concerns about the bill, attacked the lawmakers' strategy to secure a bill that could endanger the lives of vulnerable patients.
"We need to be clear about our language so we can understand what the legislature is really doing here. It is not legalizing 'aid in dying.' What the legislature is legalizing is the ability of a doctor to write prescriptions for the express purpose of killing another human being," wrote Gomez in a Sept. 11 column following the bill's approval.
"This legislation — and the process by which it was passed — is not worthy of our great State, which continues to do so much to promote human dignity and equality of access to health care. I believe it should be vetoed."
Today I contacted Ned Dolejsi, the executive director of the California Catholic Conference to get his thoughts on the next steps opponents will be taking.
"What the legislature put on his desk to deal with a $1 billion dollar shortfall in healthcare funding for the poor is a bill for assisted suicide," he said, and described it as a not very subtle message to the poor and the disabled who depend on healthcare subsidies.
Dolejsi wouldn't predict Brown's likely decision, which will come within weeks: But he promised that opponents of assisted suicide would send a message to the governor.
"There will be a large public outcry and it will focus on the issues we think are most salient in the public area. There will be personal letters and the Catholic bishops will offer their request for a veto," he said.
To get the governor's attention, Californians Against Assisted Suicide, a coalition of opponents of the practice that includes disabled activists, will kick off protests with a picket line at the state capitol in Sacramento, led by low-income people.
Said Dolejsi: "They will present the voice of the poor and disabled. whose voice was ignored in the passage of this bill."
Given the Golden State's role as a trendsetter for the nation, it is worth noting that the bill's supporters framed it as the next logical step in the advancement of individual autonomy.
“It allows for individual liberty and freedom, freedom of choice,” Mark Leno, a Democrat from San Francisco told The Times, comparing it with "the issue to gay marriage."
Dr. Aaron Khariaty, a leading opponent of assisted suicide and the director of the medical ethics program at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine, has sought to challenge that argument, but he says it has been tough to gain a foothold.
When he debated the issue of assisted suicide at UC Irvine, Khariaty told me, "i was really trying to ... look at this from a public health perspective and consider the effect it will have on the entire practice of medicine. My opponent never addressed those arguments.
"We found this right to autonomy in the Constitution and that gave us a right to contraception, abortion and gay marriage and so we clearly need this [assisted suicide].
"it is aobut a new understanding of human dignity, a radical autonomy, a will to power: i can control everything, including my own death. There is no arguing with that."
Khariaty concluded: "It is troubling that on policy issues you can't talk any more about right and wrong. There is nothing anymore that people would consider to be instrinsically evil."