Capitol Alert

Catholic Church quietly guides efforts against assisted death measure

Sacramento Bishop: Aid-in-dying bill marginalizes the poor

Sacramento Bishop Jaime Soto said reintroducing aid-in-dying legislation during the special health session distracts from the needs of the weak and vulnerable. (Video by Alexei Koseff)
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Sacramento Bishop Jaime Soto said reintroducing aid-in-dying legislation during the special health session distracts from the needs of the weak and vulnerable. (Video by Alexei Koseff)

Eight years ago, then-Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony assailed Fabian Núñez for his support of legislation allowing doctors to prescribe fatal medication to terminally ill patients, saying the Assembly speaker was being led toward “the culture of death.”

This year, with a variation of the assisted-death bill revived in the special session, Mahony’s successor, José Horacio Gómez, said it is the most vulnerable populations – the poor, elderly, minorities and the disabled – who “are going to suffer from this legislation.”

The Catholic Church has for decades waded into matters of state, on issues as varied as immigration and abortion to the death penalty and climate change. The church also advocates on behalf of a substantial financial empire that includes hospitals and schools. To that end, it has resorted to more traditional lobbying approaches, spending hundreds of thousands annually to influence the Capitol.

Between the Catholic Conference and the Alliance of Catholic Health Care, the church has committed nearly $200,000 a quarter on lobbying in California since 2013.

Between the Catholic Conference and the Alliance of Catholic Health Care, the church has committed nearly $200,000 a quarter on lobbying in California since 2013, focusing on dozens of issues. The church successfully lobbied for measures banning districts from charging teachers for training, protecting tenants who flee dire domestic situations, expanding food donation tax credits and assisting formerly incarcerated people in need of mental health and substance treatment.

With the assisted death bill now on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk, the church’s ability to affect the outcome of legislation is again being put to the test.

Catholic Democrats and the Latino Caucus were the top targets of the church’s ultimately unsuccessful attempts to prevent the legislation from reaching the governor, lawmakers and advocates said.

David Quintana, one of the lobbyists hired by Compassion and Choices, the advocacy arm behind the bill, said he and colleagues heard from worried Latino Democrats. Some were getting an earful from concerned Catholic relatives; others from priests and nuns.

Quintana said advocates could match the other side in a standard debate, “But with the church, you can’t argue policy to policy; it’s policy to heart.” It was like, “Come on, ‘how can you take amendments on God’s word?’ ”

“Almost every Latino Democrat we met with, to a person, said ‘they are killing me in my local churches,’ ” he said. “They didn’t even want to talk about it.”

He said the momentum really shifted when the bill was revived after the summer recess. Lawmakers were assured that Catholic hospitals would not be required to participate, or even tell patients. More lawmakers came aboard “once they realized it was a choice, and it was narrowly prescribed,” Quintana said.

Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, told colleagues and activists that his office was inundated with calls from Catholic Latino constituents.

“We’ve heard people going as far as questioning or challenging our own beliefs,” said Garcia, a Catholic. “It’s not something we are forcing people to do.”

Of the Latino Caucus’s 22 members, six did not support the bill.

Californians, who have shown majority support for the concept in polling over the years, have similarly mixed views.

Robert Olvera, a Catholic physician who lost his young adult daughter to cancer, said he was offended when he read Gómez’s comments about the poor and minorities suffering from assisted-death legislation. Emily Rose, 25, had terminal leukemia. While receiving home hospice and palliative care, Olvera said, she begged him for the option to end her pain with medication during the last several months of her life.

“She said to me ‘Dad, no one should have to live like this,’ ” he recalled. “What we did with her was prolong her suffering and misery for the last four months.”

Olvera said his daughter was Catholic and received her last rites. He wrote a response to Gómez explaining his disappointment with the church’s position, but never sent it. Olvera said he has fewer qualms sharing his message with the governor.

“Right now he stands between something that is very compassionate – I know there are people that have been waiting in his (Capitol) hallways – and ignoring what the majority of Californians want,” he said, urging Brown to “be the elected official to move forward with our wishes for a gentle passing.”

Brown, once a Jesuit seminarian, has stood shoulder to shoulder with the church in his effort to combat climate change. This summer, he made the pilgrimage to the Vatican and Pope Francis, whose encyclical on the environment called for action to protect the planet.

Brown has been uncomfortable, however, discussing his religious practices. His office, aside from suggesting the special session was not an appropriate time to deal with the assisted-death issue, has refused to comment on its merits.

Edward “Ned” Dolejsi, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, invoked the teachings of the Holy Father in urging a veto.

“Pope Francis invites all of us to create our good society by seeing through the eyes of those who are on the margins, those in need economically, physically, psychologically and socially,” he said when the bill passed last week. “Looking through those eyes, ABX2-15 is bad law for California.”

I think death is a natural process that needs to occur when it’s supposed to occur.

The Rev. Kenneth J. Laverone of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Sacramento

Sacramento Bishop Jaime Soto joined in the bill’s criticism at a recent Capitol news conference. Assemblywoman Susan Eggman, D-Stockton, the lead author, met in her office with Stephen E. Blaire, the bishop of Stockton. And the Rev. Kenneth J. Laverone of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Sacramento sponsored a forum led by a palliative care physician who works and ministers to the dying.

“I think death is a natural process that needs to occur when it’s supposed to occur,” he said in an interview.

The church’s clout was felt in past legislative battles. For the second time, Brown last year vetoed a measure that sought to give victims more time to pursue civil damages against third parties in childhood claims of sex-abuse. “Statutes of limitations exist as a matter of fundamental fairness,” Brown said.

Senate Bill 924, which was opposed by the Catholic Conference and nonprofits, would have extended the time a victim could bring civil sex-abuse lawsuits to age 40 from age 26. The opponents argued it “pays lip service to the interests of victims of abuse” while providing an exemption for state workers.

It was introduced after Brown rejected Senate Bill 131 the prior year, issuing a 1,100-word message that reached back to English common law and Roman law.

“There comes a time when an individual or organization should be secure in the reasonable expectation that past acts are indeed in the past and not subject to further lawsuits,” Brown wrote in 2013. “With the passage of time, evidence may be lost or disposed of, memories fade and witnesses move away or die.”

Last year Brown did sign another, Senate Bill 926, that increased the criminal statute of limitations against perpetrators of sex-abuse cases.

Assisted-death bills have been a recurring reality in California since 1995. That year, lawmakers introduced two identical measures modeled after Oregon’s first-in-nation Death with Dignity Act. Neither was given a legislative hearing.

Seven years later, the church and medical allies took aim at Proposition 161, which sought to allow terminally ill patients to choose euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide. They argued it would not protect against death by mistake, or for financial reasons. The measure was voted down, 54 percent to 46 percent.

Two legislative bills stalled in the mid-2000s, and then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sidestepped taking a position on the issue by declaring it was up to voters to decide whether the state should legalize assisted death.

Núñez for the first time joined the cause with Assembly Bill 374 in 2007. It ultimately failed amid critiques from the church, with him at the center. Mahony said while Núñez has “worshipped here in this cathedral as a Catholic,” he “somehow has not understood and grasped the culture of life.”

It’s our hope that (Brown) would veto this bill.

Edward “Ned” Dolejsi, executive director of the California Catholic Conference

Today’s opponents, a coalition of oncologists, disabilities rights groups and independent living centers, downplayed the role of the Catholic Conference and Alliance of Catholic Health Care in legislative testimony and during events at the Capitol. Instead, they’ve focused on what they view as the bill’s many flaws. They contend legalized assisted death could immediately become the lowest-cost option for frail and elderly ill people.

“The only people bringing up religion in this debate were the authors, the people they had come and testify, and legislators on the floor,” said Tim Rosales, a spokesman for Californians Against Assisted Suicide.

He noted that among those testifying for proponents was the Rev. Ignacio Castuera, a Methodist on the board of Compassion and Choices, who said God was calling him to support assisted death.

The Catholic Church, Dolejsi said, has been more focused on making policy arguments. He refused to handicap its chances with Brown.

“It is certainly our prayer for him that he would achieve the wisdom necessary. And it’s our hope that he would veto this bill,” Dolejsi said of the governor.

But he added, “he’s going to do what he’s going to do.”

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago

AB 2X-15, the assisted death bill

The bill permits competent adults with terminal disease to receive lethal drugs under certain conditions. Patients must:

  • have the capacity to make make medical decisions
  • voluntarily ask for the drug
  • self-administer the drug
  • submit two oral requests, at least 15 days apart, and a written request that has been witnessed
  • receive separate diagnoses of the terminal nature of the disease from two independent physicians
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