Judge Strikes Down California’s Physician-Assisted Suicide Law on a Technicality

Photo Credit: Alex Borland

NAPA, Calif. — A county judge in California has struck down the state’s physician-assisted suicide law, ruling that lawmakers wrongfully glided the bill through during a special legislative session that was to have focused on Medicaid funding, services for the disabled and in-home healthcare services.

While he did not base his decision on the merits of the law, Judge Daniel Ottolia of the Riverside County Superior Court agreed with the plaintiffs, represented by the Life Legal Defense Foundation (LLDF), that the legislation was not pertinent to the purpose of the special session.

“[T]he End of Life Option Act does not fall within the scope of access to healthcare services,” Ottolia ruled. “[It] is not a matter of health care funding” or “related to improving the health of Californians.”

As previously reported, in 2015, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown signed the End of Life Option Act into law, outlining that he had spoken to those on both sides of the issue before making his decision.

“I have carefully read the thoughtful opposition materials presented by a number of doctors, religious leaders and those who champion disability rights,” he wrote. “I have considered the theological and religious perspectives that any deliberate shortening of one’s life is sinful.”

“In the end, I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death,” Brown outlined. “I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain. I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I wouldn’t deny that right to others.”

Days before the law went into effect, LLDF filed a legal challenge on behalf of five Californian doctors, as well as the American Academy of Medical Ethics (AAME), which represents over 600 doctors in the state.

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“Under the Act, ‘terminal illness’ includes any condition that, if left untreated, would cause death within six months. This encompasses many types of illnesses—even those that can be successfully treated—if the patient decides to forego treatment,” LLDF said in a press release. “Moreover, predicting life expectancy is crude and fraught with subjective judgment. Physicians’ predictions for life-expectancy are frequently wrong.”

It also noted that the law provided “no safeguards for labeled individuals who may suffer from untreated mental illness or mood disorders and grants full immunity for doctors to participate in the killing of their most vulnerable patients.”

Judge Ottolia denied the group’s request for an immediate injunction, but allowed the challenge to move forward in court. In the meantime, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed a motion for the case to be dismissed.

On Tuesday, Ottolia heard argument from both sides surrounding the matter and agreed with LLDF that the passage of the bill was not related to the special session. Becerra vowed to appeal.

“State-sanctioned suicide sends the message that some lives are not worth living,” LLDF said in a statement. “California law now pits the financial interests of health care providers, especially in cases where the provider and insurer are the same entity, against the needs of patients. We have heard of cases where insurance companies will pay for lethal drugs, but not for life-prolonging treatment.”

As previously reported, Stephanie Packer, a California mother of four who has been diagnosed with terminal scleroderma, explained in a video released in 2016 that after California legalized assisted suicide, her insurance company declined to pay for her new chemotherapy medicine, but said that suicide pills would be covered.

“[W]hen the law was passed, it was a week later I received a letter in the mail saying they were going to deny coverage for the chemotherapy that we were asking for,” she explained.

In calling to inquire why, “they kind of gave me this roundabout story, and I wasn’t really getting clear answers,” Packer recalled. “So, I said, ‘Well, what about the drugs they are using for the new [assisted suicide] law? … Would you cover that for me?’”

“And [the insurance agent] says, ‘Yes, we do provide that to our patients, and you would only have to pay $1.20 for the medication,’” she said. “And it was just like someone hit me in the gut.”

More than 100 people have killed themselves since the End of Life Option Act became law in June 2016.


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