Judge Overturns Dangerous California Assisted Suicide Law

By Jennifer Popik, J.D., Director of Powell Center for Medical Ethics

On Tuesday, Riverside County Superior Court Judge Daniel Ottolia issued an oral ruling on the state’s relatively new and highly controversial assisted suicide law, concluding that lawmakers illegally used a special session in 2015 to ram the law into effect.

Judge Ottolia did not rule on the underlying issue of permitting health professionals to assist someone in ending their life. The law will remain in place for five days in order to give the attorney general a chance to appeal.

In 2015, the California legislature’s regular session had come to a close, and the assisted suicide bill had stalled in a Senate Health committee due to concerns over potential dangers. However, an extraordinary session was called which normally is intended to finance state health care.

The bill–the California End of Life Option Act–was pushed through over the objection of dozens of diverse groups, including those in the disability rights community, the American Medical Association, and pro-life groups. The bill was subsequently challenged by two groups and several physicians.

California, along with 5 states (Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Colorado, and Hawaii) as well as the District of Columbia, have legalized the dangerous practice of allowing a person’s physician to prescribe a lethal overdose of medication to certain patients—assisted suicide or, as proponents like to call it, Medical Assistance in Dying.

However, in 2018 alone, dozens of identical initiatives were defeated by a determined coalition comprised of a wide variety of groups.

Part of the explanation for why almost all the initiatives (over 175 legislative attempts over the years) have been defeated is that every proposal is very similar to Oregon’s nearly 20-year-old law. Critics were able to cite Oregon’s experience to prove conclusively that the “safeguards” in assisted suicide laws do not work the way proponents say they will.

Many observers have noted that medical cost concerns will be an inherent problem with these kinds of laws since the lethal drugs used are relatively cheap. Other abuses documented and exposed range from patients with dementia and mental illness receiving a lethal dose, to numerous non-terminally ill people getting prescriptions, to pressure from the state health plans to utilize the cheaper suicide option. The real depth and number of abuses is difficult to know, especially since physician reporting is very limited or simply not done.

According to the non-partisan group, the Patient’s Right Action Fund which opposes assisted suicide and seeks to protect the rights of patients and people with disabilities,

In thinking about this complex and often personal issue of Assisted Suicide, we ask that you separate private wishes or experiences and, rather, focus on the signifi­cant risks of legalizing Assisted Suicide in a diverse society – including individuals with chronic illness and disability that is not terminal if managed, non-English speaking households, economic difficulty, and limited healthcare specialist access.

In other words, these laws are simple too dangerous and they cannot be allowed to spread any further! We will continue to follow the court situation in California.