CA's Assisted Suicide Law Back On for Now

Appeals Court allows assisted suicide to continue pending decisions on law's validity

A "euthanasia kit" / Getty Images
June 19, 2018

California residents can still seek lethal medication as state courts consider a ruling that would overturn its 2015 assisted suicide law.

The state Fourth District Court of Appeals granted an emergency stay on a lower court ruling that would have suspended assisted-suicide prescriptions in the state.

"The request for an immediate stay is GRANTED. The trial court's order of May 21, 2018, and judgment of May 24, 2018, are hereby STAYED pending determination of the [appeal]," the court wrote [emphasis in the original]. Presiding Justice Manuel A. Ramirez added that the court may grant the appeal "unless good cause is shown" for overturning the law.

In May Riverside County Superior Court judge Daniel A. Ottolia ruled the assisted suicide law was invalid because the legislature improperly fast-tracked it through a special session dedicated to MediCal funding. The Court of Appeals denied an emergency appeal from Democratic attorney general Xavier Becerra to overturn Ottolia's ruling but asked plaintiffs to show cause for permanently reversing the law.

The state of assisted suicide was up in the air following those decisions, leading two patients diagnosed as terminally ill to petition to continue to keep the practice legal while the courts decide on its larger validity. Ottolia rejected that petition, but the Appeals Court reversed him. Compassion & Choices, the assisted suicide advocate that helped design California's law, sponsored those legal challenges and was pleased with the Appeals Court ruling. Kevin Díaz, the group's national director of legal advocacy, said it was important to preserve access to lethal medication because the suit could drag on for a long period of time.

"This stay is a huge win for many terminally ill Californians with six months or less to live because it could take years for the courts to resolve this case," Díaz said in a statement. "Thankfully, this ruling settles the issue for the time being, but we know we have a long fight ahead before we prevail."

Opponents of assisted suicide say that the ruling maintains the status quo, rather than addressing deficient end-of-life care. Matt Valliere, executive director of Patients Rights Action Fund, said hitting the brakes on assisted suicide during the case presents lawmakers with the opportunity to address poor funding or limited access to palliative and hospice care, which seek to minimize pain for patients dubbed terminally ill. Policymakers and medical professionals could have made real strides in raising awareness for such care, rather than relying on deadly prescriptions.

"Assisted suicide is a distraction from the real work Californians need done when it comes to health care solutions. Instead of propping up the false 'treatment' of suicide, our energies should be spent on broader and more inclusive access to state-of-the-art palliative care, better symptom management, and enhanced existential and psychological support structures," Valliere said. "Patients deserve better."

The state attorney general's office continues to fight to save the law. Becerra's appeal to vacate Ottolia's ruling is scheduled to go before the lower court on June 29.