Dan Morain

Struggling with a life and death issue

Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, walks down the aisle of the Assembly to take the oath of office at the Capitol in 2013. Gonzalez is a key liberal opponent of Senate Bill 128, which would allow physicians to prescribe lethal doses of pills to terminally ill patients who have six months or fewer to live. The measure was pulled from consideration Tuesday.
Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, walks down the aisle of the Assembly to take the oath of office at the Capitol in 2013. Gonzalez is a key liberal opponent of Senate Bill 128, which would allow physicians to prescribe lethal doses of pills to terminally ill patients who have six months or fewer to live. The measure was pulled from consideration Tuesday. Associated Press file

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez was having a rough time.

She was thinking of her mother, who died in 2007 and would have turned 70 this week, and she was having sleepless nights, struggling over an especially tough piece of legislation.

Gonzalez truly believes in all the progressive causes. Yes to abortion rights and same-sex marriage. No to capital punishment. Workers should get paid sick leave. Retail clerks should get double time for working on Thanksgiving.

People on welfare should get $50 in monthly vouchers for diapers for their babies. Families who are here illegally but protected by President Barack Obama’s amnesty order should get state-funded help with their paperwork.

Then there is Senate Bill 128, which would allow physicians to prescribe lethal doses of pills to terminally ill patients who have six months or fewer to live. Democratic Sens. Lois Wolk of Davis and Bill Monning of Carmel champion it, but pulled the bill from consideration on Tuesday.

Although the Senate had approved the measure, Wolk and Monning lacked votes in the Democratic-controlled Assembly Health Committee because of opposition from several Democrats, including Gonzalez, as well as Republicans. I side with Wolk and Monning but want to understand the thinking and politics behind liberal opposition.

Gonzalez proceeded to place her heart on her sleeve, and explain what was an intensely personal decision, not at all like pro-labor votes, which are easy for the former union leader. Her eyes filled more than once as she spoke.

Gonzalez attends Our Lady Guadalupe Catholic Church in Barrio Logan in San Diego, and her religion informs her view on issues related to trying to help the poor. But she parts with her church on other issues.

“You think about this as a choice,” she said. “But we have a health care system that is set up to cut costs.”

Gonzalez’s mother, Carmen Regan, was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 45, when Gonzalez was away at Stanford. She recovered, but the disease recurred 17 years later and metastasized.

The family gathered at Carmen’s home for Thanksgiving in 2007. Gonzalez’s older brother, Marco, delivered the good news that their mother would be a grandmother again. She died the next day.

Gonzalez’s mother had been a registered nurse and might have wanted the end of life options prescribed by SB 128. But she was educated and understood the implications of her disease. Gonzalez represents a district at the far southern end of the state, where nearly 70 percent of the residents are Latino, and a third or more are on Medi-Cal. Many speak little English.

“My concern is for people who don’t have resources, who don’t have a choice,” she said. “You read about Oregon denying someone a lung transplant, but, ‘Here, you can you have these pills.’ That’s my fear about what this would become.”

Bills to permit physician-assisted suicide have been introduced in no fewer than 20 states this year. Even so, the practice is legal in only a handful of states, in part because of the efforts of Wayne C. Johnson, a Sacramento consultant and a conservative Christian whose clients include the Alliance for Catholic Healthcare.

Johnson and Gonzalez have never met. But whether she knows it or not, Johnson made clear for legislators the issue’s complexities. As it has done in many other states, Johnson’s firm helped map a strategy that included bringing opponents, many of them first-generation Latinos, to the Capitol.

Gonzalez experiences the class divide that Johnson documents in polls and surveys. That helps explain why Democrats from more affluent areas backed SB 128, and Democrats representing poorer regions killed it.

Polls reflects significant support for aid-in-dying legislation. But polls fail to get at the nuances. In liberal Massachusetts in August 2012, a poll showed that 58 percent of Massachusetts’ voters supported Question 2 to legalize aid in dying, and 24 percent opposed it.

True to form on Election Day 2012, more than 60 percent of Massachusetts’ electorate supported Barack Obama’s re-election. They elected liberal Elizabeth Warren to the U.S. Senate, agreed to legalize medical marijuana and proclaimed that corporations are not people.

After an intensive campaign, they rejected the aid-in-dying ballot measure, by a margin of 48 percent for it, and 52 percent against. The biggest drop in support came from Democrats and self-described progressives.

In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s canceled vote, Gonzalez read arguments for and against SB 128. She sat with advocates including a family member of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old woman who suffered from brain cancer and moved to Oregon to obtain a prescription to end her life.

On Sunday, she called a friend whose father committed suicide knowing he had a terminal illness, to test whether her opinions were off, and talked to her older brother, who, as it happens, supported SB 128.

Gonzalez wasn’t without self-doubt. That’s good. It is, after all, a life and death issue. I still disagree with her, though more respectfully than before I spent time listening to her. Then again, a dying woman would be glad she didn’t end her life if by hanging on another day she would learn that another grandchild was on the way.

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