California Must Reject Efforts to Expand Assisted Suicide | Opinion

Some members of the California state legislature are pressing for legislation that expands assisted suicide. But making it quicker and easier for people to die, after more than 64,000 Californians lost their lives to the coronavirus, is misguided at best.

Assisted suicide is a dangerous public policy that threatens Latinos, people with disabilities, our elders and the most vulnerable in society. Advocates cloak their support of assisted suicide in the language of autonomy and alleviating pain, but their claims disintegrate upon close inspection. California should work to reexamine and redirect the focus from providing suicide to improving health care access for those who need it most.

In 2015, California's legislators legalized assisted suicide, boasting that they had included rigorous safeguards to prevent abuse. Now, those same proponents want to strip away the few limits they themselves had put in place. Unfortunately, those safeguards already fail to prevent abusive practices like doctor shopping or the pressuring of those with disabilities to die by assisted suicide. A recent report by the National Council on Disability found that "Assisted suicide proposals tend to promise strict safeguards that will, in theory, avoid any dangers or problems. But once passed, the restrictions tend to be ineffective or inadequate."

Now, proponents are trying to eliminate these already flimsy protections. Their new bill would reduce the waiting period from 15 days to 48 hours and eliminate a scheduled review, which could sunset the statute in 2025. Doing away with these safeguards would reduce accountability, open the door to even more abuse and increase the pressure on society's most vulnerable.

We can put names and faces to our claims of abuse and exploitation. In one instance in Oregon, Michael Freeland's physician gave him assisted suicide drugs without a psychiatric consultation even though he had a long history of depression and suicide attempts. In another tragic case from Oregon, Kate Cheney's managed care provider and family took her to a psychiatrist who rejected her application for assisted suicide. Instead of accepting the psychiatrist's decision, her daughter kept searching until she found a doctor willing to sign off on assisted suicide.

California state flag
The California State flag flies outside City Hall, in Los Angeles, California on January 27, 2017. A campaign by Californians to secede from the rest of the country over Donald Trump's election is gaining steam with supporters given the green light to start collecting signatures for the measure to be put to a vote. MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

These individual cases of abuse are deeply troubling, but what is even more concerning is how America's health care system works to crush the sick and vulnerable. There are cases in which insurance companies and programs, including Medi-Cal, denied coverage for life-saving treatments but would cover assisted suicide because they are financially incentivized to pay for the cheapest "treatment option." Nevada physician Dr. Brian Callister has discussed his experience with predatory insurers: "They told me flat out, 'Brian we're not gonna pay for the life-saving procedure. But oh, by the way, have you considered assisted suicide?'"

California hasn't been immune to abuse. Stephanie Packer was denied coverage for her chemotherapy just weeks after California legalized assisted suicide. Her Medi-Cal insurer instead said it would pay for assisted suicide drugs for a copay of $1.20. Supporters of assisted suicide downplay these stories, but patients' lived experience cannot be ignored.

Increased pressure to die by assisted suicide hurts vulnerable communities that already struggle to access care. I have watched the pandemic decimate the Latino community as our life expectancy fell 3.9 years in 2020. Latino patients often fail to establish deep connections with their doctors because only 3.8 percent of doctors are Hispanic, even though 18.5 percent of the U.S. population is Hispanic. Furthermore, even if Latinos had equal access to the gold standard of health care, how can we even talk about assisted suicide as a "choice" when California's hospices are broken beyond belief?

These hard truths leave us particularly vulnerable to health care inequities and financial and societal pressures to "choose" suicide over real care. Instead of focusing on providing easier access to suicide, states like California need to do a better job of providing high-quality and accessible care to all communities. Expanding assisted suicide will only push Latinos away from seeking care because our worst fears about the medical system will be confirmed.

Six years ago, supporters of assisted suicide in California trumpeted the supposedly strong safeguards they had included to prevent abuse. Now, the same legislators are fighting to repeal those safeguards. This is unconscionable. We urge the California legislature to craft policies that make equal access to quality health care a reality for all instead of promoting policies that make death more accessible.

Jose Berrera is the State Director of California League of United Latin American Citizens (CA LULAC).

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.