LOS ANGELES (AP) – The Catholic Church, often out of step with California’s liberal Legislature, notched a prominent win at the statehouse this week after aligning with advocates for the disabled and medical groups to defeat a proposal to allow terminally ill patients to legally end their lives.
The decision by a legislative committee Tuesday to shelve the bill followed weeks of lobbying by competing interest groups over whether to make California the next state to allow physicians to legally prescribe fatal medication, following Oregon, Washington, Montana and Vermont.
Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez wrote to the Assembly Health Committee last month, warning against a state that responds to suffering by “making it easier for people to kill themselves.”
An archdiocese website urged volunteers to get involved. Parishioners and seminarians called and met with legislators. Using English and Spanish, the Diocese of Orange urged parishioners on its website to write members of the Legislature to oppose the bill.
“For the Catholic community here in Los Angeles, this is not a ‘Catholic’ issue or a question of our doctrine or ethics,” Gomez said in a statement after the vote. “For us, the issue of physician-assisted suicide involves fundamental questions of human dignity and social justice.”
He characterized the archdiocese as part of a “broad and diverse coalition,” that included health care workers, disabled people and other groups.
California lawmakers have long been at the forefront of advancing gay and reproductive rights, issues that frequently conflict with Catholic teachings. But in this case the church found itself on the same side as other interest groups at the statehouse, including the Medical Oncology Association of Southern California and the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, helping tip the political balance.
“It’s a different kind of playing field from abortion and gay rights,” said Claremont McKenna College political scientist Jack Pitney. “The church is part of a more powerful coalition.”
The vote carried possible political risks for Hispanic lawmakers from the Los Angeles area whose districts include large numbers of Latino Catholics, although independent polls have found most state voters support allowing terminally ill people to receive life-ending drugs.
State Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, a Los Angeles Democrat who serves on the health committee, said his office received calls from Catholic constituents opposed to the bill but that it was inaccurate to say lawmakers were reluctant to support the proposal because of pressure from the church.
“It’s not a religious thing for me, it’s how this is going to be implemented in the real world,” Gomez said Monday.
Tim Rosales of Californians Against Assisted Suicide said member organizations, ranging from clergy to medical groups, accounted for thousands of emails and phone calls to lawmakers over the course of the debate this year.
The key is “constituents and voters contacting their legislators,” he said. “Because of the size and diversity, the sheer number of partners on this, that made the impact.”
Before Tuesday’s vote, California right-to-die legislation had cleared the state Senate and surmounted a key political hurdle when the influential California Medical Association dropped its decades-long opposition this year.
Supporters of the legislation tried to combat the church’s efforts by targeting Hispanic Democrats from Southern California who are on the Assembly committee, including bringing out religious leaders of other faiths to bolster their case.
The fight resumed Wednesday.
George Eighmey, vice president of Death With Dignity, a group that supports medically assisted suicide, blamed the church for blocking the bill in a fundraising email to supporters.
“Act today to let your Assembly member know that every Californian, if faced with a horrible death from a terminal illness, deserves to die peacefully at the time and place of their choosing,” he wrote.