CA assisted suicide law remains in legal limbo

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A California court of appeals overturned Tuesday a lower court's ruling that had put the state's assisted suicide law in jeopardy.

The 4th District Court of Appeals in Riverside, California overturned the lower court because it said that plaintiffs to a lawsuit opposing the law did not have sufficient standing to sue. The court said that the plaintiffs, doctors opposed to assisted suicide, did not show they were harmed by the law.

Because of its procedural decision, the court did not rule on the lawsuit's substantive challenges to the constitutionality of the state's assisted suicide law.

The End of Life Option Act was passed in 2015 during a special legislative session focused on health care funding. Assisted suicide had failed to pass in committee during the 2015 regular legislative session in California.

Under the law, adults able to make medical decisions are allowed to receive lethal prescriptions if two doctors confirm the patient is likely to die within six months from a terminal illness.

Judge Daniel Ottolia of the Riverside County Superior Court ruled in May that the legalization of assisted suicide was unconstitutional because it was passed during a special session intended to address only funding shortages resulted from Medi-Cal.

A legal challenge was filed by a group of doctors.

In May, plaintiffs' attorney Stephen Larson told the Sacramento Bee that "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."

This week, the appeal court sent the case back to the level of the lower court, where it is likely to be refiled by the plaintiffs, after being amended to address issues including the legal liability of doctors involved with assisted suicide.

Because the law does not clearly state that a doctor is not legally responsible for participating in the death of a patient, it conflicts with other California laws, and ambiguities could create legal liability.

Matt Valliere of the Patients Rights Action Fund lamented the court's decision, noting the law lacks concern for vulnerable patients, like Stephanie Packer, who suffers from the lung cancer, scleroderma.

"Assisted suicide is not health care and places countless Californians at risk of deadly harm. Terminally ill Californian Stephanie Packer has firsthand experience of how this law has eliminated choice. Sadly the Court's ruling in this case ignores this fact and fails to protect vulnerable patients whose care has been compromised by this dangerous public policy."

Packer told Angelus News that insurance companies would not fund potentially life-saving treatments, but instead offered her assisted suicide drugs.

"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," she said.

"For too many, assisted suicide will be the only affordable 'treatment' that is offered them."

While advocates for assisted suicide have expressed disappointment that litigation may last for years to come, Justice Marsha Slough said that courts should resolve challenges to the law quickly, and find for its constitutionality.

"We have a responsibility to expeditiously disperse the uncertainty this litigation has created for countless patients, family members, and loved ones, as well as physicians and workers in the health care sector," Slough wrote, according to the Associated Press.

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A report from the California Department of Public Health said 374 terminally ill patients ended their lives by assisted suicide in 2017 – the first full year that the law has been in effect.

The California Catholic Conference reiterated its opposition to assisted suicide in the beginning of 2018, criticizing the lack of data collected and a lack of transparency in 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."

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