Suicide schism

The California Compassionate Choices Act pits an assemblywoman against her bishop

Patty Berg, co-author of California’s assisted-suicide bill, modeled it on an Oregon law that’s been in effect for seven years.

Patty Berg, co-author of California’s assisted-suicide bill, modeled it on an Oregon law that’s been in effect for seven years.

Photo By Stephen James

Assemblyman Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, opened the Capitol hearing of the Assembly Judiciary Committee by asking that the debate on the proposed legislation be conducted with civility and decorum. He knew that the individuals and organizations who gathered to testify for and against the proposed law were highly emotional, because he had held two prior public hearings in Los Angeles and Sacramento. “There are going to be strong feelings on either side, and I would like to ask everyone to please refrain from clapping or cheers or any other overt displays,” he said, “out of respect for those who are testifying and those who might hold views different than your own.”

Those strong feelings soon made themselves evident. Following the legislators’ opening statements, the audience was allowed to testify before the committee. After waiting in long lines that snaked to the rear of the hearing room, an assortment of doctors, lawyers, disability advocates, health-care workers, senior citizens and ordinary citizens took the microphone and implored the committee to kill—or approve—Assembly Bill 654, the California Compassionate Choices Act. AB 654 would legalize assisted suicide in the state, and the hours of testimony heard by the committee reflected the full range of passions generated by this controversial subject.

But beyond the arguments presented that day, the legislation also has generated a less publicized battle that has remained mostly under the radar. With few exceptions, the leaders of virtually all Judeo-Christian religious denominations, including the Catholic Church, are universally opposed to assisted suicide or any form of euthanasia. So, it has greatly disturbed the Catholic hierarchy and a significant portion of the laity across the state—and especially in her own diocese—that one of the co-authors of AB 654 is Assemblywoman Patty Berg, D-Eureka, a self-proclaimed practicing Catholic.

The church often has struggled with how to handle Catholic legislators who support abortion and other issues that contradict church doctrine, but Berg’s sponsorship of the assisted-suicide bill is seen as particularly egregious and has put her in open defiance of the bishop, priests and parishioners of her own diocese.

In February, Berg introduced a bill to extend the Caregiver Tax Credit, which is scheduled to expire this year, to the year 2010. The tax credit is used by people who take care of an adult or child who needs assistance with daily activities, such as bathing, eating and getting dressed. “These people do their families and this state a great service,” Berg announced at the time. “They care for those who might otherwise have to be placed in a nursing home or special care facility.” Berg, who also serves as chair of the Assembly Committee on Aging and Long-Term Care, said that “a lot of these hardworking families are struggling with a heavy burden. This credit is a small but meaningful way to help them.”

One week after she proposed extending the Caregiver Tax Credit, Berg announced she was introducing the assisted-suicide legislation co-sponsored by Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, D-Van Nuys, a bill that also would arguably help hardworking families struggling with a heavy burden. But opponents of AB 654 view the proposal as blatantly contradictory to the compassionate intent of the tax credit. Modeled after a similar Oregon law that has now been in effect for seven years, the assisted-suicide measure would allow doctors to prescribe fatal doses of medication to terminally ill patients who have less than six months to live. Two doctors would have to concur on the terminal diagnosis and verify that the patient is capable of making the decision to end his or her own life. The patient also would have to make two oral requests and one written request to die before being allowed to self-administer a lethal dose of medication.

If passed, the measure would become only the second assisted-suicide law in the country. Similar laws have been proposed, but defeated, in California and other states. Forty-three states have passed laws that specifically ban any euthanasia practice. A 1992 assisted-suicide proposal was rejected by California voters, and a 1999 euthanasia/assisted-suicide bill died in the Legislature. Berg and Levine claim that their bill is different from prior California proposals because it has additional patient safeguards and that the seven-year track record of the Oregon law has shown that initial objections to the law were unfounded. Berg said that a majority of Californians support the measure, and she cites a Field Poll conducted in February that found that 70 percent of the public supports the idea that “incurably ill patients have the right to ask for and get life-ending medication.” The poll found that there were no large differences in opinion about the issue by voter-registration status, political party or religious affiliation.

Rabbi Reuven Taff of Sacramento’s Mosaic Law Congregation spoke at an Assembly Bill 654 committee hearing, arguing that death with dignity is an oxymoron.

Courtesy Of Mosaic Law Congregation

Regardless of polling, a number of opponents to the measure have formed a coalition, Californians Against Assisted Suicide (CAAS). The group includes disability-rights advocates, the Alliance of Catholic Healthcare, and the California Catholic Conference. CAAS argues that the legislation is unnecessary because California law already gives every patient the right to refuse extraordinary end-of-life treatment and that patients often live many years after a terminal diagnosis. In addition, initial depression and temporary thoughts of suicide are common in patients who are told they will die, making them initially vulnerable to the option of assisted suicide. Opponents also point to studies that show that most patients killed under the Oregon law consented to the procedure because they were depressed, not because they were in pain. With respect to the Field Poll showing broad public support for the measure, CAAS notes that the 1992 assisted-suicide initiative originally polled with 71-percent support but was defeated at the polls with 54 percent of voters ultimately rejecting the measure.

Illustrating why Berg’s support for the law is considered scandalous, the California Catholic Conference says church doctrine mandates that euthanasia is morally unacceptable and that “those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect.” The conference notes that Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, “When earthly existence draws to a close, it is again charity which finds the most appropriate means for enabling the elderly, especially those who can no longer look after themselves, and the terminally ill, to enjoy genuinely human assistance and to receive an adequate response to their needs, in particular their anxiety and their loneliness.”

“I am a Roman Catholic, a practicing Roman Catholic,” Berg said. “To me, the bill is all about the freedom of the individual to make choices, and it respects the freedom for your choices to be different from my choices, and the people of California get that,” she said. Before joining the Assembly, Berg spent 19 years as the founding executive director of the Area Agency on Aging in Humboldt and Del Norte counties. She said her experiences in that position gave her the idea for the assisted-suicide legislation. “It’s something that I have felt passionately about for a long time. I’ve worked in the field of senior citizens for about 25 years and have dealt with a lot of death and dying,” she said.

Berg said she doesn’t have a problem reconciling her faith and church doctrine with the assisted-suicide law or, for that matter, other issues that contradict church teaching. “Church doctrine is against family planning. Church doctrine is against condoms for AIDS [patients]. Church doctrine is against divorce,” she explained. Berg said that she met with her bishop, Daniel Walsh of the Diocese of Santa Rosa, to discuss her proposed law. “We had a very nice conversation, and we agreed to disagree without being disagreeable,” she explained. “I believe in God. I believe in a merciful God. I don’t believe in a God that sees me as needing to suffer.” Berg emphasized that although she might not choose assisted suicide for herself, “I would not want to deny that choice for someone else.” She also feels that there is a connection between the right to commit suicide and the right to terminate a pregnancy, which she also supports, despite Catholic teaching on the subject. “To me, it’s just like Roe v. Wade. It’s just like abortion. If you support choice at the beginning of life, you can’t reconcile not supporting choice at the end,” said Berg, who has been active in pro-choice issues for more than 25 years. In 1982, she helped found Humboldt County’s first pro-choice political-action committee, according to her legislative biography.

In February, Walsh initiated the counterattack on his obstinate parishioner by issuing an official pastoral letter, distributed in all church bulletins in the diocese, denouncing the assisted-suicide bill. “There are many emotional and touching arguments that will be made to support the proposal for physician assisted suicide but we, as Catholics, cannot lose sight of the natural law and the principles of faith that are involved. We are not masters of our lives but rather stewards of this gift of life from God,” he wrote. The bishop also cited several sections of the catechism that address suicide. “I believe that all of us should work to prevent this proposal from becoming law in our state. I ask you to contact your representatives in the state legislature to voice your opposition to this proposal which is contrary to the fifth commandment. Our religious values have a place in our democracy and in the pubic square. We must not be afraid to express and support them for the good of our society,” the letter concluded, without noting that the sponsor of the bill was a member of his own flock.

Several calls to Deirdre Frontzak, communications director of the Diocese of Santa Rosa were not returned. Judy Barrett, the diocesan respect-life coordinator, said she is actively involved in ensuring that the assisted-suicide bill is stopped at the Assembly level. She said her team has attended legislative hearings and initiated postcard, letter and phone-call campaigns. “The real focus now is trying to get it stopped in the state Assembly,” said Barrett of the bill, which passed out of the Assembly Appropriations Committee by an 11-5 vote last week.

Barrett confirmed that it was common knowledge within the diocese that Berg had met with Walsh. “I wasn’t there, but I have heard from other sources that it was handled in exactly the appropriate pastoral manner,” she said. Which is? “Well there are appropriate ways for bishops to approach people who are in error and who are causing scandal and so on, but I am not at liberty to say any more beyond that.”

The friction within the Catholic community also has spread to the Diocese of Los Angeles. In April, state Senator Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, also a Catholic, signed on as a co-author of the assisted-suicide bill. But the schism is not exclusively Catholic and also has extended to the Jewish community. A prominent advocate of the bill is Rabbi Suzanne Singer of Temple Sinai in Oakland. Singer concedes that the three branches of Judaism—Orthodox, Conservative and Reform—essentially are opposed to assisted suicide in any form but that there are a handful of rabbis within the liberal Reform community who have proposed supporting the concept. “It’s controversial, but I don’t think I’m alone in my support of it,” she said.

Rabbi Reuven Taff of the Mosaic Law Congregation in Sacramento is also the past president of the Sacramento Rabbis’ Association and was one of the impassioned speakers at Jones’ committee hearing. Taff told the committee that the proponents’ “death with dignity” argument was unsupportable. “Death with dignity, ladies and gentlemen, is an oxymoron. Human life is, in its very essence, dignified. Death can never be so,” he said. Taff also traced the origin of the assisted-suicide concept to Nazi Germany. “It is meaningfully ironic that the inhumane Nazi forces that sought to dehumanize innocent human life were the very same that introduced euthanasia as a concept to modern civilization,” he said. “Death is a necessary part of the human life cycle, and we have no right to tamper with life except for the purpose of preventing its destruction or loss.”