Could Doctors' Suit Kill California's Physician-Assisted Suicide Law?

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on June 14, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

As California's physician-assisted suicide law went into effect last Thursday, the American Academy of Medical Ethics, Life Legal Defense Foundation, and several physicians went to work to try to stop it. The law, the End of Life Option Act, allows doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medicine to competent, terminally ill adults with less than six months to live.

But the group of conservative physicians and medical professionals argues that the law strips patients of legal protections and is seeking to have the law overturned. Do they have any chance of success?

What California's End of Life Option Act Does

Under the new physician-assisted suicide act, signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown last October and effective as of last week, doctors may now prescribe lethal doses to aid patients in ending their lives, without violating the state's homicide, malpractice, or other laws.

Before patients may receive the lethal dosage of drugs, however, they must have two physicians determine that they are both mentally competent and terminally ill. Patients must make their requests direct to their doctor at least twice, separated by 15 days. Doctors are required to counsel patients on alternatives and to request psychiatric evaluations if the patient's mental state is in question.

Groups and Physicians Object

The law unconstitutionally strips terminally ill and potentially depressed patients of important legal protections, the suit alleges. Alexandra Snyder, an attorney with the Life Legal Defense Foundation, says that "the law, the way the law is written, clearly removes certain legal protections from a certain class of people."

Another lawyer, Stephen Larson, recently spoke to the Los Angeles Times. The law "is very arbitrary, very capricious, very ambiguous -- really no accountability," he said, sounding quite Trumpian. "This is not a good law."

And while California's law has been controversial in the medical field, the groups bringing suit do not represent mainstream medical establishments. The American Academy of Medical Ethics, for example, opposes abortion in all cases, homosexuality, and the use of stem cells in medical research.

The suit, filed in Riverside County, seeks to keep the Riverside County district attorney from recognizing the law and to enjoin him from recognizing its constitutionality. The judge rejected the group's request for a restraining order last Thursday, but will hear their arguments regarding an injunction at the end of the month.

Supporters of the law do not appear to think the challengers will be successful. Ken Diaz, national director of legal advocacy for Compassion & Choices, told the Times, "I just don't understand what their assertions are, given that this legislation treats all people, no matter what their condition, equally ... I don't really think it has legs."

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