California’s aid-in-dying law overturned in court

A judge in Riverside County, California, ruled the state legislature violated the law by passing the state’s aid-in-dying act during a special session limited to healthcare funding, giving the state’s attorney general five days to respond or else it would again be illegal for terminal patients to be given life-ending drugs by physicians.

The law, passed by California lawmakers in 2015, led to several more states allowing physicians to prescribing lethal doses of medication to mentally capable patients with terminal illnesses. Since then, it’s been used by hundreds of patients, such as an ALS patient who threw a “going away party” with family and friends documented by her sister reporting for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Prescribing the lethal dose of drugs has been voluntary for physicians in California and some religious-affiliated hospitals have forbidden their doctors from participating.

The judge’s ruling wasn’t based on groups’ moral or religious objections to the practice, but rather a question of legislative authority. At the time, the legislature was in special session which was limited to dealing with funding shortages for public health programs. Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Ottolia said the law doesn’t fall within that definition.

“We are pleased with today’s ruling, which reinstates critical legal protections for vulnerable patients,” said Alexandra Snyder, executive director of the Life Legal Defense Foundation, one of the plaintiffs in the suit and opponent of aid-in-dying laws. “The court made it very clear that assisted suicide has nothing to do with increasing access to health care and that hijacking the special session to advance an unrelated agenda is impermissible.”

The court withheld its judgment for five days to allow the state to file an emergency appeal, which California Attorney General Xavier Becerra indicated his office would be seeking.

Compassion & Choices, a group, which advocated for the law, told HealthExec in a statement it’s confident the state will prevail in its appeal and “reinstate this perfectly valid law.”

“While we respect the plaintiffs’ personal opposition to the law, they certainly should not be able to take away the ability of other doctors to offer this option to dying patients to peacefully end their suffering,” said Kevin Díaz, national director of legal advocacy for Compassion & Choices.

Even if the state loses in its appeal, California’s legislature would likely pass an identical piece of legislation while avoiding the procedural issues cited in Ottolia’s ruling.

“I think this is a short-term victory for people who object on religious principles to the availability of this option,” Harry Nelson, an attorney who represents several doctors who have written prescriptions under the law, told the Los Angeles Times.