‘Death with dignity’ law faces continued challenge

Right-To-Die-Passed-In-CaliforniaGov. Jerry Brown’s decision to sign the End of Life Option Act on Oct. 5, 2015, triggered elation among the state groups which had fought for years to allow doctors to give people with terminal illnesses lethal doses of drugs to end their lives. A key sponsor — Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel — said the law’s enactment “marks a historic day in California.” The law took effect in June and will remain in place for 10 years.

But attempts to block the law have never stopped. Backers of a lawsuit seeking to scrap the measure may have lost the battle last week in a Riverside County courtroom, but they appear to still have a chance to win the war.

In refusing a request for an injunction to put the law on hold, Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Ottolia cited the safeguards touted by its advocates: the requirement that the patient establish his or her mental competence; that the patient have statements from two medical doctors that he or she will die within six months; and that the patient and only the patient can administer the lethal drugs.

Nevertheless, Ottolia let the lawsuit — technically against Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin as the local symbol of the state’s legal system — proceed. The judge concluded that the lawsuit raised enough serious issues that it should not be dismissed.

Is psychiatric evaluation needed, not competency check?

Plaintiffs include the American Academy of Medical Ethics, the Christian Medical and Dental Society, and six Riverside-area doctors. The argument they made that appeared to resonate the most with Ottolia is that the End of Life Option Act is at odds with the clear intent and plain meaning of another state law meant to provide emergency help to people who are a physical danger to themselves. That law specifies that people with suicidal impulses get professional treatment. A mental competence check-up does not meet this test, according to the plaintiffs’ attorney, Alexandra Snyder, who belongs to  the Life Legal Defense Foundation, which is based in Napa.

The plaintiffs’ brief in the case noted that California law holds that helping in or encouraging a suicide is a felony and questions how a doctor can legally counsel someone — even if they are dying — to consider suicide. 

The brief also contends the End of Life Option Act does an end run around laws meant to protect ailing older people from elder abuse.

Defenders of the law expressed disappointment that the lawsuit was not thrown out and said that Oregon’s history of allowing “death with dignity” since 1997 had been marked by none of the “hypothetical” abuses warned of by the plaintiffs.

California is the fifth state with such a law.

Besides Monning, the law was also co-sponsored by Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, and Assemblywoman Susan Eggman, D-Stockton. Their legislation was modeled on the Oregon law.

Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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