California's new law makes it easier to push someone into assisted suicide. (Photo by Shutterstock)

California rolls back assisted suicide protections

By Joshua McKeown, Catholic News Agency

California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 380, a law that loosens several safeguarding requirements surrounding assisted suicide. The California Catholic Conference had been strongly urging opposition to the legal change.

“SB 380 does not offer genuine protection to patients and their families, nor does it ensure quality, equitable care for all,” the Catholic Conference wrote. 

“We must protect vulnerable persons in times of weakness – the poor, elderly, people with disabilities, and others in vulnerable groups – from indifference, prejudice, abuse, exploitation, devaluation, and psychological and financial pressure to end their lives.”

Assisted suicide was legalized in California in 2015 by the End of Life Option Act, implemented under then-governor Jerry Brown. That act originally included a sunset clause and a legislative evaluation in 2026. 

Existing California law required patients to make two separate requests, a minimum of 15 days apart, for assisted suicide medication. The law signed Oct. 5 shortens the required waiting period between the requests to 48 hours. 

The new law also eliminates a requirement that the patient requesting assisted suicide make a “final attestation.” 

The new law requires a healthcare provider who is unable or unwilling to participate in assisted suicide to inform the patient that they do not participate, document the date of the individual’s request and the provider’s notice of their objection, and transfer their relevant medical record upon request. Previously, healthcare providers who objected to assisted suicide were not required to refer patients to a provider who did not object. 

“Stripping safeguards from the original assisted suicide law proves what opponents of assisted suicide laws have always claimed: That limitations on assisted suicide wouldn’t last for long once it was legalized,” Matt Vallière, executive director of Patients Rights Action Fund, an anti-assisted suicide organization, said Oct. 6.

“What California did yesterday lacked compassion and understanding. The effects of this law will be felt for years to come as people throughout the disability and aging community struggle to access quality healthcare.”

The conference noted that California’s assisted suicide law passed in the first place in part because of the safeguards and because of the sunset clause; the newly passed law extends the sunset clause to 2031. 

There is “no data or science” to support the removal of such safeguards, the Orange County Register has noted. The Catholic conference has criticized the lack of data collected and a lack of transparency in the law’s implementation. Annual reports on the End of Life Option Act do not include any information on the reasons for patients requesting the lethal drugs. 

The Catholic Medical Association, along with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Health Association, have repeatedly expressed support for palliative care as opposed to assisted suicide. 

Palliative care involves medical care and pain management for the symptoms of those suffering from a serious illness, and refraining from taking actions that directly take the life of the patient, as opposed to the practices of assisted suicide and euthanasia.

In addition to California, assisted suicide is legal by law in Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia; and in Montana through a state supreme court ruling. 

In 2018, Superior Judge Daniel Ottolia of Riverside County declared California’s assisted suicide law unconstitutional, ruling that the legislation was “adopted illegally” since it was passed during a legislative session limited to issues other than assisted suicide. 

Then-California Attorney General Xavier Becerra— now U.S. secretary of health and human services— appealed Ottolia’s ruling in May 2018, and fought to reinstate the assisted suicide law.

The law was upheld by a January 2020 ruling of the Riverside County Superior Court, which determined that it was lawfully passed and did not violate the state constitution.