The California law goes beyond even “passive euthanasia” by having doctors intentionally recommend death to still functioning people. The Catholic Church in California issued a statement condemning the law when it was passed in 2015 and again last month when it was overturned.
Last month, a Riverside County Judge put a hold on California’s practice of physician-assisted suicide. As part of a lengthy legal battle, Superior Court Judge Daniel Ottolia ruled that the law legalizing physician-assisted suicide was unconstitutional because it exceeded the bounds of the special legislative session that passed it. This immediately halted implementation of the law.
The law is modeled after Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act of 1997 with some minor additions. Under California’s law, a patient can be prescribed a life-ending drug by their doctor if they were determined by two doctors to be terminally ill with less than 6 months to live. Patients must be physically able to swallow the medication themselves when it is given to them.
Much of the impetus for passing the law resulted from the publicity around Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old California woman who in 2014 was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and given six months to live. She became the face of the right-to-die movement as she argued for the option to die before her life became too painful to enjoy. She chose to move to Oregon, one of the four states where assisted suicide was legal at the time, where she killed herself in November 2014. Shortly thereafter, a bill was introduced to the California legislature. Governor Jerry Brown cited his hesitation to support the bill given his Jesuit background but ultimately signed it into law on October 5, 2015.
Immediately after the law came into effect on June 9, 2016, religious groups and disability rights advocates challenged it in court. Opponents of physician-assisted suicide point at the incentives it creates for insurance companies to encourage patients to request death for financial reasons. As Marilyn Golden of Disability Rights and Education Defense Fund puts it “There is a deadly mix between our broken, profit-driven healthcare system and the legalization of assisted suicide, which would immediately become the cheapest treatment.”
This was exactly the case with Barbara Wagner in Oregon under the similar law. If human life is reduced to an economic figure, it follows naturally that we have an obligation to end it as soon as it becomes enjoyable in order to trim down the budget.
Another constant concern is the chance that the patient will be misdiagnosed or some other mistake will lead to an unforeseen death. In Oregon in 2000, Michael Freeland was granted the lethal drugs despite a 43-year history of depression and suicide attempts because the doctors did not think that a psychiatric evaluation was necessary.
One of the strongest voices against physician-assisted suicide is Father Philip Johnson. In 2008, he was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer at the age of 24 and given a year to live. Almost a decade later, he was ordained as a Deacon in the Catholic Church. Speaking from experience, he testified before a Connecticut legislature considering physician-assisted suicide laws and said:
They [the terminally ill] feel, as I have often felt, that they are a burden on their families and on society, so an earlier death becomes a temptation. This is not a mindset where someone should be presented by society and the law to consider taking their own life. On the contrary, in my experience ministering to the sick, I have noticed that once they are surrounded by those who love them and have adequate pain management, they stop wanting to die.
Christians have always been staunch defenders of the immutable value of human life. The Catholic Church has notably fought against any form of euthanasia citing the immense theological backing behind the church’s long-held beliefs. Most Protestant denominations are united in their opposition to so-called “active euthanasia,” as the Presbyterian Church USA puts it where an agent intentionally ends the life of a patient, but they allow “passive euthanasia” where one simply ceases to care for an already dying patient and lets them die naturally. This position is also held by the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the United Methodist Church. Others such as the Southern Baptist Convention continue to reject suicide in any form and refer to a “culture of death” that has come to permeate our society.