SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California’s assisted suicide law was wrongly passed in a special legislative session, ruled a California judge this week.
Though the ruling might only be temporary, one terminally ill woman at the May 15 hearing was grateful for it.
“The bill’s proponents tout dignity, choice, compassion, and painlessness. I am here to tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. Choice is really an illusion for a very few,” Stephanie Packer said, according to the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s Angelus News. “For too many, assisted suicide will be the only affordable ‘treatment’ that is offered them.”
Packer said that her insurance company would not fund potentially life-saving chemotherapy treatments for her lung cancer, but instead offered her “aid-in-dying” drugs that would cost her $1.20. The action made the married mother of four a vocal opponent of assisted suicide laws, including California’s End of Life Option Act.
Judge Daniel Ottolia of the Riverside County Superior Court ruled on Tuesday that lawmakers had unconstitutionally passed the law in a 2015 special session of the legislature dedicated to health care funding. The judge has postponed his judgment for five days to allow the state to file an emergency appeal.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra voiced strong disagreement with the ruling and said he plans to appeal it.
The judge’s decision drew support from other foes of the legislation.
“The act itself was rushed through the special session of the legislature, and it does not have any of the safeguards one would expect to see in a law like this,” Stephen G. Larson, head counsel for a group of doctors who filed a legal challenge to the law, told The Sacramento Bee.
The bill lacked an adequate definition of terminal illness and a provision exempting from legal liability the doctors who prescribe the drugs, according to Larson’s clients.
However, Larson challenged the bill specifically on the fact that the special session was called “to address funding shortages caused by Medi-Cal.”
“It was not called to address the issue of assisted suicide,” he said.
Under the law, lethal prescriptions may be given to adults who are able to make medical decisions if their attending physician and a consulting physician have diagnosed a terminal disease expected to end in death within six months.
The initial legislative effort to pass an assisted suicide bill failed in committee during the 2015 regular season, following months of media attention to the case of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman with an aggressive brain tumor who moved from California to Oregon in order to take advantage of legal physician-assisted suicide there.
Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman, who backed the bill, charged that the judge’s decision interfered with Californians in the process of securing the lethal drugs under the law.
“It's a reminder for all of us that there are those out there who would like to take our rights away,” she said. “When we move forward, there are those who would like to drag us back.”
Harry Nelson, a healthcare attorney in Los Angeles who represents several doctors who have prescribed lethal prescriptions, told the Los Angeles Times he thinks it is unlikely the law will be permanently overturned. He believes the legislature will be able to reinstate the law with any changes the court believes to be necessary.
Matt Valliere, executive director of the New York-based Patients Rights Action Fund, applauded the ruling. He said it affirmed that assisted suicide advocates “circumvented the legislative process.”
“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,” he said.
In the first seven months after the law took effect in June 2016, there were 111 people who chose to end their lives under it, according to The Sacramento Bee.
Including California, seven states and the District of Columbia have legal provisions allowing assisted suicide, National Public Radio reports.
In January 2018, the California Catholic Conference reiterated its opposition to assisted suicide and criticized the lack of data collected and the lack of transparency of the law’s implementation.
“There is far too much still not known about how this law is put into practice — especially as it pertains to disabled, elderly and other populations,” the conference said Jan. 24. “California is failing to properly investigate some very fundamental questions such as whether patients were coerced into the procedure or somehow influenced and, especially for Medi-Cal patients, whether they had the option of good, effective palliative care.”