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Aid-in-dying bill aligns with religious liberty

Aid-in-dying bill aligns with religious liberty
Archbishop Jose Gomez believes that it would violate God’s will if terminally ill patients chose to end their painful suffering by taking a lethal drug prescribed by doctors. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Pope Francis spoke last week about "religious liberty" being "one of America's most precious possessions."

No argument there.

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Religious liberty, in fact, is one reason why Gov. Jerry Brown should sign a bill that has generated Roman Catholic opposition and intense argument for years in Sacramento.

The bill is the one that supporters call "aid in dying" and opponents label "assisted suicide."

Catholic leaders in California — especially Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez — assert it would violate God's will if terminally ill patients chose to end their painful suffering by taking a lethal drug prescribed by doctors.

"Helping someone to die — even if that person asks for that help — is still killing," Gomez wrote in a church column.

But what if a dying person didn't believe that himself, and his own faith did not preach it? Shouldn't he be allowed to practice his own faith and decide for himself, free from another religion's doctrine?

Religious liberty to me means the freedom to believe in your own god — or believe in none.

The pope, far as I could tell, didn't comment specifically on end-of-life issues, let alone the California bill that Brown has been studying.

Francis brought up religious liberty while meeting with President Obama and speaking to thousands outside the White House.

"The right to religious liberty," the pope said, is "one of America's most precious possessions." And we should all be "vigilant," he continued, "to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it."

Amen.

The California bill, AB 15, modeled after an Oregon "death with dignity" law, has religious liberty written all through it.

If a physician or hospital for religious reasons — or for any reason — didn't want to participate in expediting death, they wouldn't have to.

"We're respectful of other beliefs and opinions," said a major co-author, Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis).

The pope did briefly touch on life issues in addressing Congress.

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"The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development," he said.

That sounded like a prelude to restating the church's opposition to abortion and perhaps venturing into the end-of-life debate. But Francis instead called for the global abolition of the death penalty.

That was encouraging for the California bill's main author, Assemblywoman Susan Eggman (D-Stockton), a former Army combat medic and hospice worker. She's also a Catholic.

There's non-religious opposition to the bill as well. Some disability activists fear it could be used by family members and insurance companies to get rid of burdensome and costly patients.

Dying people might be coerced into swallowing the lethal pill, opponents protest. But under the legislation, coercion would be a felony.

There are many safeguards.

Two doctors would have to confirm that a patient was terminal, had less than six months to live and was mentally competent.

The patient would need to make two oral requests to a physician at least 15 days apart, with witnesses. The doctor and patient would have to meet once alone. The patient would need to sign a written reconfirmation of his decision within 48 hours of taking the lethal drug. And the drug would have to be self-administered.

As the bill struggled through the Legislature, lawmakers on both sides told personal stories of parents, loved ones or friends enduring indignities and excruciating pain as they neared death. Floor debates got emotional.

"We're going to have blood on our hands," warned one opponent, Sen. Jeff Stone (R-Temecula).

"Who is going to decide how we die?" asked a supporter, Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara). "Some of my colleagues tell me it's God's decision. Well, it is not my God's decision. My God wants me to make that decision."

"Sorry, colleagues," said Assemblywoman Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield), "pain is part of life."

"I don't pretend to know what God has in mind about peace and suffering," said Assemblywoman Catherine Baker (R-San Ramon), "but I know it's a merciful God. To allow suffering is cruel."

Baker was one of only three Republicans who voted for the bill.

Because it passed in a special legislative session, Brown will have just 12 days to act after he receives the measure. It didn't reach him until Friday, although the Legislature adjourned Sept. 11. There has been a stack of bills stuck in legislative paperwork.

But there's also speculation that the aid in dying bill was purposely held back to give the traveling governor plenty of time to analyze it. And he has been "taking a close look," says spokesman Evan Westrup.

"We're giving him time and space to think about it," Eggman says.

There's also a theory that Brown, a former Jesuit seminarian, didn't want to sign the bill while the pope was in the country.

The governor hasn't publicly hinted what he might do.

He did criticize the Legislature for taking up the bill in a special session with a different cast of Assembly committee characters after opponents blocked it in a regular session panel. But it's unlikely Brown would veto the measure merely because he didn't like the legislative process. That would seem petty.

If the governor thinks the bill's safeguards are adequate, it's difficult to envision him vetoing it. Yes, he's a former seminarian, but he embraces abortion rights and same-sex marriage against his church's teachings.

Brown believes in religious liberty.

Twitter: @LATimesSkelton

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