Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Judge Overturns Doctor-Assisted Suicide Law and Reopens the Debate

On May 15, Riverside Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Ottolia declared that the California legislature violated the law by passing the End of Life Option Act (EOLOA) in 2015 during a special session dedicated to healthcare issues, according to the plaintiffs in the case as well as advocates for the law. "We're very happy with the decision today," said Alexandra Snyder, head of the Life Legal Defense Foundation, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit. "We will now wait and see what the attorney general does."

The response from California Attorney Gen. Xavier Becerra

Becerra’s response: "We strongly disagree with this ruling, and the state is seeking expedited review in the Court of Appeal." Becerra has filed an appeal.

Ruling reopens an emotionally charged issue

Judge Ottolia’s ruling reopens an emotional debate on Californians’ ability to make decisions on how they will spend their final days. John C. Kappos, an attorney representing Compassion and Choices, which advocated for the law, said he believes the passage of the law was constitutional because aid in dying is a healthcare issue. "Ultimately, we are confident an appeals court will rule the Legislature duly passed the End of Life Option Act and reinstate this perfectly valid law, which the strong majority of Californians support."
Even if the appeals court upholds Ottolia’s decision, the state legislature could pass a similar law, perhaps with additional safeguards. The law has strong support in the legislature and among the public.

One view: A short-term victory for those who object

Harry Nelson, a Los Angeles healthcare attorney thinks it's unlikely the law will be overturned permanently. He said that even if the court's decision stands, the Legislature would probably be able to reinstate the law with whatever changes the court deems necessary. "I think this is a short-term victory for people who object on religious principles to the availability of this option," said Nelson, who represents several doctors who have written prescriptions under the law. Nelson believes that Ottolia's decision to give Becerra five days to file an emergency appeal was "aggressive, leaving the attorney general's office with a really narrow window to do everything they need to do to get the court of appeals to intervene and uphold and continue the law," he said.

An opposing view: Assisted suicide advocates circumvented legislative process

"This ruling affirms that assisted suicide advocates circumvented the legislative process," Matt Valliere, executive director of the New York-based Patients Rights Action Fund, which opposes legalizing physician-assisted suicide, said in a statement. "It represents a tremendous blow to the assisted suicide legalization movement and puts state legislatures on notice regarding the political trickery of groups like Compassion and Choices."

EOLOA: A look back and a look forward

  • California’s End of Life Option Act was signed into law in 2015, and the law went into effect on June 9, 2016.
  • In the first six months, more than 100 people used the law to end their lives.
  • California's data from the law's first six months show that 173 physicians wrote 191 prescriptions statewide.
  • The law allows patients with fewer than six months to live to request end-of-life drugs from their doctors.
  • The law’s passage was controversial and it has remained a divisive issue. Conservatives argue that the limits on euthanasia gradually erode, and that the law endangers the weak and marginalized. In the years since the law went into effect, groups opposing assisted suicide have continued to lobby for its repeal.
  • Writing the lethal prescriptions is voluntary for doctors and medical facilities in California; some, including all Catholic and church-affiliated hospitals, have not allowed their physicians to prescribe such medicines.
For those who want to use the EOLOA, checks and balances are carefully built into the law. A patient must make two oral requests, at least 15 days apart. There must be witnesses and second opinions about their conditions. The process is spread over time to avoid someone’s making an impulsive decision.
Becerra is expected to file an appeal to a higher court, but he is yet to do so. Experts believe it is unlikely that the decision will affect assisted suicide in California in the long term. Even if the appeals court upholds Ottolia’s decision, the state legislature could pass a similar law, perhaps with additional safeguards. The law has strong support in the legislature and among the public.

Creating an Advanced Healthcare Directive

End-of-life care options can be detailed in an Advanced Healthcare Directive that is part of our comprehensive Living Trust package. Contact California Document Preparersat one of our three Bay Area offices to get started today. Our dedicated team is helpful, compassionate and affordable.

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