Rick Warren & Joni Eareckson Tada weigh in on California's newest assisted suicide bill

by Joni B. Hannigan , Editorial Staff |

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LOS ANGELES (Christian Examiner) – California Christians Rick Warren and Joni Eareckson Tada recently both strongly opposed a bill that advanced by California lawmakers last week authorizing suicide pills for the terminally ill.

The California Senate last week advanced the right-to-die bill authorizing doctors to write a suicide pill prescription for those who have been told they have less than 60 days to live.

A life is of infinite worth and there is value to us and those around us in our suffering. I fear we are trying to put ourselves in God's place to determine when a life should end. As our Creator, it is His call and His alone.
- Joni Eareckson Tada, Joni Friends International

California would be the fifth state, after Oregon, Washington state, Montana, and Vermont, to approve the practice – modeled after a voter approved Oregon law that took affect in Oregon in 1997. The Senate measure, which passed largely according to party lines on a 23-14 vote, allows for physicians to prescribe lethal drugs to the terminally ill.

Debate reportedly drew raw testimony from opponents and supporters.

Sen. Jeff Stone, R-Temecula, in opposing the measure said California, the most populated state in the nation, could become known best for "death tourism."

"What's going to be the new theme of California," he asked, according to Time Magazine. "Come play, live and die in California?"

Democratic Sen. Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles said the bill gave her options and would not force her to act outside of her "religious, cultural or ethical," comfort zone.

Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren – whose own 27-year-old son committed suicide in 2013, earlier had warned voters to take a stand.

"I oppose this law as a theologian and as the father of a son who took his life after struggling with mental illness for 27 years," Warren said.

Following the vote in the Senate, Warren Tweeted on social media: "If you think assisted suicide might be a good idea please watch this: stephaniesjourney.org You'll think twice."

Stephanie Parker is a 32-year-old wife and mother of four who was told in 2012 she had three years to live, but says on a website about her experience that the news "didn't sink in right away."

When the news that her diagnosis of scleroderma -- a chronic connective tissue disease that literally takes her breath away -- would paralyze her gastrointestinal track, Packer found a "new purpose" in leading and participating in support groups.

"When you're sick and dying, everyone around you is going through it, too," she says on her interactive website. "It's a ripple effect that touches everyone around you, but you can't let it consume you."

She has also worked tirelessly to defeat California's assisted suicide bill.

"Terminally ill people need to know they're valuable and worthwhile," Packer said. "They think they will add value to their lives by taking their own lives, that ending their lives sooner is more dignified. But if they really value their lives and the lives of the people around them, they could entrust their doctors to care for them properly and treat their pain."

Joni Eareckson Tada, the founder of Joni and Friends Internality Disability Center, based in Southern California – and one of the longest living quadriplegics on record – also spoke out against the bill.

In a statement released to Christian Examiner, Tada wrote that she and other disability advocates recognize "so-called 'death with dignity'" legislation can lead to abuse. While meant to apply to terminal illness, the definition of such is often murky and those with significant disabilities may be pressured by insurers, and even families, into believing it is their "duty to die."

"Safeguards were supposed to have been put in place to prevent patients from seeking out and receiving these deadly prescriptions without being thoroughly evaluated, both physically and mentally," Tada wrote, providing research. "This has not proven to be the case, and many individuals have received these drugs from doctors they've only seen once and have had no psychiatric or psychological examinations."

The California Catholic Conference, the Medical Oncology Association of Southern California, and the California Disability Alliance have expressed similar views.

Ira Byock, a leading palliative care expert who was a dormer director of palliative medicine at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center at Dartmouth University, says at the root of the issue is a universal problem of dying people not getting proper care.

He said in an article published in the Los Angeles Times that doctors should not write prescriptions for lethal medications because "they are not supposed to kill their patients," and the practice may put already vulnerable people at risk.

The issue sparked international debate last year after 29-year-old Brittany Maynard, who was dying of brain cancer, moved from California to Oregon and documented her final weeks in online videos.

Maynard and supporters argued she would have been able to get lethal – and legal – drugs prescribed by her California doctors.

The bill, SB 128, now goes on to the state Assembly where it faces two subcommittees before a full Assembly vote. Once it passes there, Gov. Jerry Brown has not indicated whether he will sign the bill.

Tada in her comments, referenced "inalienable rights" bestowed on Americans by the nation's founders and asked how legislators could meddle with those and "call it choice."

"A life is of infinite worth and there is value to us and those around us in our suffering," she wrote. "I fear we are trying to put ourselves in God's place to determine when a life should end. As our Creator, it is His call and His alone."