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For decades, suicide prevention hotline volunteers have helped talk people out of committing suicide.

Now, however, a 1-800 End of Life Consultation service sponsored by assisted suicide proponents will offer free counseling sessions to terminally ill Californians seeking to end their own lives.

Members of Californians Against Assisted Suicide, a diverse coalition of medical professionals, disability rights groups and religious leaders, say the suicide consultation phone service, announced Sept. 18 at a Sacramento church, represents an extreme “shift in tactics” by assisted suicide supporters frustrated by five failures over the past 15 years to get a bill legalizing physician-assisted suicide through the California Legislature.

California’s most recent physician-assisted suicide bill, AB 374, the “California Compassionate Choices Act,” co-authored by Assembly members Patty Berg and Lloyd Levine, was pulled from the Assembly Floor this past June due to lack of support but may be resurrected as a two-year bill in early 2008. Some opponents believe Compassion & Choices’ End of Life Consultation service is a strategic response to last year’s defeat of AB 374.

“This effort to put a clerical collar on Dr. Kevorkian only makes assisted suicide creepier,” said Tim Rosales, spokesperson for Californians Against Assisted Suicide. “Calling a 1-800 number to get counseled on how to commit suicide, no matter who is doing it, is not only risky and dangerous, but is sure to open the door to numerous questions regarding coercion and liability.”

According to Rosales, the California program will be similar to a national program by the Final Exit Network, a spin-off group of the Hemlock Society and End of Life Choices, which provides suicide counseling to anyone that meets the criteria of having an “incurable condition which causes intolerable suffering.” These efforts typically counsel people on suicide methods such as the use of plastic bags and stockpiling drugs.

“End of Life Consultation Service is a tactic to assist terminally-ill persons wishing to end their lives. The positive points about ELCS — advocating for hospice and palliative care — must not cloud the fundamental immorality of the consultation itself,” said Sulpician Father Gerald Coleman, vice-president of Corporate Ethics for the Daughters of Charity Health System, and adjunct professor of moral theology at Santa Clara University.

“ELCS would like us to think that its Consultation Service is just like any other palliative care program,” said Father Coleman. “They assert that ELCS is a service that embraces a broad range of care, [including] comfort, emotional, hospice and family care. While these elements are present, ELCS places aid-in-dying along this continuum, making it just another option.”

According to a Sept. 18 article on the End of Life Consultation program in The Sacramento Bee, California residents will be able to call a toll-free number where they will be screened before getting advice on accessing hospital care and pain treatment. As stated in the article, “The goal of the program is to help people die. Volunteers, including clergy, will neither provide nor administer fatal drugs, but they will monitor the patient as the self-administered medication works.”

Though the suicide phone consultation program may keep the issue of assisted suicide in the public eye, opponents doubt it will lead to the legalization of AB 374. “There’s still the same amount of opposition to this bill and the prospects of passing it are very slim,” said Rosales.

Assisted suicide proponents “can’t get a groundswell going,” said Carol Hogan, communications director for the bishops’ California Catholic Conference. Though supporters of assisted suicide assert that polls show a majority of Californians support legalizing physician-assisted suicide, legislative efforts to pass such a measure have met with intense opposition.

Doctor members of the California Medical Association have consistently opposed the bill, as have disabled activists who say terminally ill people, especially low-income individuals, may be coerced into choosing suicide.
[, by Paula Doyle; Cheryl Eckstein, Compassionate Healthcare Network (CHN), CHN is member of the World Federation of Doctors Who Respect Human Life (WFDWRHL) Dr. Karl Gunning, Pres.]