Archbishop Gomez (CNS photo/Paul Haring) (Sept. 18, 2012)

Archbishop Gomez (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

LOS ANGELES (CNS) — After the California Senate voted to legalize physician-assisted suicide in the state, Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez called it the wrong response to a “public health crisis.”

“The compassion that doctor-assisted suicide offers is hollow. And this legislation has dangerous implications for our state, especially for the poor and vulnerable,” Archbishop Gomez said.

“There is no denying that in California and nationwide we face a public health crisis in the way we treat patients who are terminally ill and at the end of life,” he added. “But the answer to fear and a broken system is to fix the system and address the fears. It is not to kill the one who is afraid and suffering.”

Archbishop Gomez made his comments in an essay, “Dying with dignity in California,” posted June 9 on the website of the Tidings, Los Angeles’ archdiocesan newspaper.

The state Senate had approved the bill June 4 by a 23-14 vote. The bill was sent to the state Assembly for consideration. A planned June 23 hearing in the Assembly on the bill was postponed the night before; no new date was immediately offered.

“It is a failure of public leadership and moral imagination to respond to human suffering by making it easier for people to kill themselves,” Archbishop Gomez said. “Helping someone to die — even if that person asks for that help — is still killing. And killing is not compassion, it is killing.”

He added, “The debate over doctor-assisted suicide is a distraction that is preventing us from confronting the real issues that we face in public health,” citing Americans’ longer lives and the growing incidence of such age-related illnesses like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Under the bill passed by the Senate, doctors will be allowed to prescribe life-ending drugs to those with a terminal illness expected to live less than six months longer.

The bill has a conscience clause permitting individual doctors to refuse a patient’s request to prescribe the drugs. It is believed this clause is what caused the California Medical Association to drop its objections to the bill.

Patients must be assessed by two independent physicians, provide two written and one verbal request for the lethal drugs, and wait 15 days before a doctor writes a prescription.

Disability rights advocates campaigned against the bill, but lawmakers might have been more swayed by the parents and husband of Brittany Maynard, a California woman who, upon learning she had a terminal illness, moved to Oregon last year so she could take advantage of that state’s physician-assisted suicide law.

California Gov. Jerry Brown has not taken a position on the bill, but his aides said Brown had talked to Maynard before she died.

One California woman facing a terminal illness is using her remaining days to defeat the bill.

Stephanie Packer, 32, a wife and mother of four, was told in 2012 she had three years to live. She is affected with scleroderma, which is a hardening of the skin and connective tissues. All the scarring caused by the disease has paralyzed her gastrointestinal tract, requiring her now to take all of her nutrients through a tube.

“If everyone had a doctor who cared, no one would even consider ending their own life,” she posted on her website, “Patients don’t know how to find that doctor or how to navigate the complicated health care system and they don’t have the tools or information they need. They’re so tired and don’t have the strength to deal with the fight. Instead, they’ll take the assisted suicide option because it’s easier.”

Packer added, “We don’t hand a gun to someone who’s suffering from depression. So we shouldn’t give the dying a handy tool to end their lives. It’s important instead to give terminally ill patients the tools to live. There is beauty in their lives; perhaps more even than before their diagnoses. You see life differently when death is imminent.”

A bill was last introduced in the California Legislature on physician-assisted suicide in 2007, but the bill never came to a vote.