A California judge has overturned the law the grants terminally ill patients the right to end their lives with a doctor’s help, reigniting an emotional debate over an issue that had seemed long settled.
Riverside County Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Ottolia ruled that the Legislature violated the state constitution by passing the 2015 law during a special session called to address emergency needs in the state’s health care system, not aid in dying. Ottolia kept the law in place and gave the state attorney general five days to file an emergency appeal of the ruling before a higher court, where a longer stay could be granted.
If the state is unsuccessful in defending the law, Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, vowed to re-introduce the measure before the full legislature.
“I’m disappointed and distressed. They were grasping for a reason,” said Monning. “There will always be a future option to reintroduce the same legislation – nothing prohibits us from doing that. But that’s not the option we hope for.”
The law It allows physicians to prescribe life-ending drugs to Californians diagnosed as having less than six months to live, and at least 111 terminally ill people have used it to end their lives. Of those who have requested the drugs, the majority, about 58.6 percent, suffered from cancer, 18 percent had a neuromuscular disorder such as ALS and Parkinson’s, and others had heart and respiratory diseases. Throughout the state nearly 500 hospitals and health systems, more than 100 hospice organizations and 80 percent of insurers now participate.
The original legislation seemed destined for failure in the face of opposition from the Catholic church and personal and religious concerns from some doctors and a group of mostly Southern California Democrats. But it was re-packaged as part of a special legislative session on health care funding, bypassing the Assembly Health Committee where it had stalled. In his signing message, Gov. Jerry Brown, a former Jesuit seminarian, expressed his extensive deliberations over the historic bill, writing “In the end, I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death.”
That seemed to conclude a 23-year effort to pass a “right-to-die” law in a state of 39 million, more than quadrupling Americans’ access to life-ending drugs. California was the fifth state to take such a step.
The Life Legal Defense Foundation, American Academy of Medical Ethics and several physicians condemned the strategy and turned to the courts, saying the law devalues life and puts vulnerable people at risk. They argued that the while the state Constitution permits the Governor to issue proclamations to convene extraordinary legislative sessions, the Legislature is prohibited from enacting bills that are not the specific subject of the proclamation.
“The purpose of the End of Life Option Act is not related or even incidental to the stated purpose of the extraordinary session,” wrote Life Legal Defense Foundation Executive Director Alexandra Snyder, calling it a “flagrant and unlawful abuse of the legislative process.”
“Suicide does not improve health,” she wrote.
Supporters of the law disagreed, calling aid-in-dying is a legitimate health care option. Medi-Cal services are written into the law, according to John C. Kappos, a partner in the O’Melveny law firm representing Compassion & Choices, a national organization promoting end-of-life care options that successfully advocated for the legislature to pass the law.
“Ultimately, we are confident an appeals court will rule the legislature duly passed the End of Life Option Act,” he said, in a prepared statement, “and reinstate this perfectly valid law, which the strong majority of Californians support.”
The ruling was a blow to those depending on the law to ease their suffering.
“This unjust ruling to take away this compassionate option to peacefully end my suffering is my worst nightmare,” said Matt Fairchild, 48, a retired Army staff sergeant from Burbank suffering from metastatic melanoma. “I pray the attorney general successfully appeals this decision, so hundreds of terminally ill Californians like me don’t have to suffer needlessly at life’s end,” he said in a prepared statement.
The law was inspired by Brittany Maynard, 29, the former Alamo resident with brain cancer who moved to Portland in 2014 to seek medical aid in dying because California had not passed its law. The effort gained momentum after legislative testimony by advocates such as San Mateo’s Jennifer Glass, who died in 2015 at age 52
“In Brittany’s honor, I will once again focus all my efforts to convince Gov. Brown, the attorney general and the courts to keep this law in effect,” said Maynard’s husband Dan Diaz, in a prepared statement. “I made a promise to my wife Brittany that I would continue her fight to authorize medical aid in dying in California.”
Right to Die: Judge overturns assisted suicide law