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Judge OKs court challenge to California’s assisted suicide law

June 22, 2017
Valerie Schmalz

A Superior Court judge ruled June 16 that a civil rights lawsuit challenging California’s assisted suicide law will go forward.

Riverside County Superior Court Judge Daniel J. Ottolia denied California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, which had asked the judge to decide the case against the plaintiffs without a trial. Five California physicians and the American Academy of Medical Ethics brought the legal challenge last year. The judge scheduled a trial setting conference for Oct. 20.

The ruling is “a really big deal,” said attorney Alexandra Snyder, executive director of Life Legal Defense Foundation, which represents the plaintiffs. “The End of Life Option Act is a dangerous law that exposes vulnerable individuals to direct and indirect pressure to commit suicide.”

By treating those diagnosed with six months or less to live differently than other patients, the 2015 End of Life Option Act violates the patients’ due process and equal protection rights under the California and U.S. Constitutions, the plaintiffs argue. The law authorizes doctors to prescribe lethal prescriptions to any patient diagnosed by two doctors as having six months or less to live.

The lawsuit also contends the law was unconstitutionally passed during an extraordinary legislative session called specifically to address Medi-Cal funding shortfalls, after the California Legislature repeatedly rejected physician assisted suicide legislation during regular session.

The California attorney general argued in Riverside Superior Court that no one is required to resort to the law, that terminally ill patients are different than others and therefore can be treated differently, and that patients who choose to end their lives have the right to have a physician help them.

The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit on June 8, 2016, against Riverside County District Attorney. Kamala Harris, then the California attorney general, intervened to be a party in the lawsuit a month later.

“I am very heartened to hear about this decision,” said Dr. George Delgado, one of the five physicians suing to overturn the law. “Physician-assisted suicide does damage to patients who are in very difficult situations. It does damage to the medical profession. It compromises the sacred trust between physician and patient which should be based on healing, not based on killing.”

With the End of Life Option Act, patients diagnosed as terminally ill “are denied protections afforded by laws covering a range of topics, including suicide, homicide, mental illness, and elder abuse,” the plaintiffs, represented by Life Legal Defense Foundation and Larson O’Brien LLP, state.

“They further lose legal protections requiring doctors to provide reasonable professional care in executing their duties under the act,” the lawsuit states. “The legislature has stripped these rights from the citizens the act targets at the very time when these citizens most need competent medical care and thorough legal protection.”

“It is a positive first step that finally addresses the concerns that the legislative sponsors and leadership and governor ignored,” said California Catholic Conference executive director Ned Dolejsi, referring to Gov. Jerry Brown’s decision to sign the legislation which made California the fifth state to legalize medically assisted suicide. Earlier this year the District of Columbia also legalized it.

“California’s assisted suicide law is rife with pitfalls,” said Vicki Evans, respect life coordinator for the Archdiocese of San Francisco. “It takes little imagination to see how the law could put the vulnerable at risk. The weak and disabled need advocates, not those who are ready to advocate suicide as a solution to their suffering.”

Since the law took effect last June, 504 people have requested life-ending drugs, according to unofficial statistics provided by doctor assisted suicide advocacy group Compassion & Choices, which said the statistics are based on those who have contacted the organization. “Overturning the End of Life Option Act would have devastating consequences for terminally ill Californians and their families,” said Kevin Díaz, national director of legal advocacy for Compassion & Choices, which has filed a friend of the court brief in the case.

The plaintiff doctors and American Academy of Medical Ethics had unsuccessfully requested a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to block the law from taking effect when they filed their lawsuit June 8, 2016.

The case is Ahn v. Hestrin, Riverside County Superior Court, RIC1607135.

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