Right-to-Die Campaign Heats Up in Courts, CA Legislature

     SAN DIEGO (CN) – A national campaign to allow the dying to choose the manner of their death went into overdrive this week with a lawsuit filed in California and a medical association’s decision to support a California bill that would allow help to those who want to die in peace.
     The lawsuit filed by a major California law firm challenges California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who is also running for the U.S. Senate, over her enforcement of the current laws that prohibit advice and help to those want to end life.
     Filed in state court in San Diego, the legal action asks for a ruling that California’s criminal prohibition on such help is unconstitutional. A similar action was filed on the same day this week in Tennessee
     “Aid in dying provides an option for the terminally ill,” said John Kappos, with O’Melveny & Myers, who is lead counsel in the California case. “It also gives them peace of mind and alleviates anxiety related to the dying process.”
     On Wednesday, the California Medical Association reversed its decades-long stand on the issue and said it has become “the first state medical association in the nation to change its position on the long-debated issue of physician aid in dying.”
     “The decision is a very personal one between a doctor and their patient, which is why CMA has removed policy that outright objects to physicians aiding terminally ill patients in end of life options,” said Dr. Luther Cobb who leads the assocation.
     California Penal Code section 401 makes it a felony to “deliberately aid or advise or encourage another to commit suicide.”
     Plaintiff Dr. Lynette Cederquist treats patients and regularly advises them on end-of-life options.
     “She does not provide Aid in Dying because she fears prosecution under Section 401,” she says in the complaint. “She would like to advise patients about all of their end-of-life options, including Aid in Dying. If Aid in Dying treatments were lawful in California, she would be willing to write a prescription for medication to terminally ill, competent adults who, at their own discretion, could exercise the option to self-administer the drug.”
     A bill in the California Legislature, Senate Bill 128, the End of Life Option Act, would legalize aid in dying in California.
     “We believe it is up to the individual physician and their patient to decide voluntarily whether the End of Life Option Act is something in which they want to engage,” Cobb said.
     “Protecting that physician-patient relationship is essential,” the CMA said in its statement Wednesday. “By removing decades-old organizational policy, CMA has eliminated its historic opposition and is now officially neutral on Senate Bill 128.”
     In the California lawsuit, the first plaintiff, Christy Donorovich-Odonnell, has advanced lung cancer which has metastasized to her brain, liver, spine and rib. She has less than six months to live and cannot tolerate morphine. A second plaintiff, Elizabeth has advanced colon cancer, which has metastasized to her liver and lung.
     “Aid in dying and death with dignity are not the same as physician-assisted suicide or even euthanasia,” said Sean Crowley, a spokesman for Compassion & Choices, of Portland, Ore., whose attorney Kevin Díaz is co-counsel in the case.
     “Aid in dying is a medical practice that allows mentally competent, terminally ill adults to request a prescription from a physician for life-ending medication. The person may then self-administer, if and when, they choose to do so,” Crowley said.
     “Not being afraid to die is not the same thing as wanting to die – I don’t want to die,” plaintiff O’Donnell says in a video provided by Compassion & Choices.
     O’Donnell worked as an attorney and was a detective for the Los Angeles Police Department.
     “The law is ever changing and is set up to change with the needs of society,” O’Donnell said. “There is an absolute need for physician aided death. Ultimately, I choose whether to fill a prescription or even take the medication. I choose when and where I die and with whom.”
     California courts recognize the right for citizens to make end-of-life decisions, including the right to refuse life-sustaining treatment, according to the lawsuit.
     For example, state law allows terminally ill patients to request terminal sedation, by which a physician administers sedatives to render the patient unconscious, then discontinue hydration and nutrition until the patient dies.
     California allows this “freedom of choice” to give patients some control over their quality of life in their final days, attorney Kappos said in an interview.
     “Modern medicine can keep you alive indefinitely, but it cannot always manage pain,” Crowley said.
     Aid in dying provides an option for those whose death is imminent, and whose suffering has becomes unbearable and manageable.
     Oregon, Washington, Vermont and Montana allow aid in dying, and have guidelines for clinical practice in end-of-life care.
     The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment “that Section 401 cannot and does not apply to physicians who provide Aid in Dying to terminally ill, competent adult persons who request such aid,” and an injunction “prohibiting defendants from prosecuting physicians who participate in aid in dying under those circumstances.”
     In addition to Harris, the attorney general, the lawsuit names as defendants district attorneys in Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento.
     Harris’s press secretary Kristin Ford declined to comment, as did a spokeswoman for Sacramento County District Attorney Ann Marie Schubert.
     Three doctors and a dying 84-year-old attorney on Wednesday filed a similar lawsuit against Tennessee, in Davidson County Court, Nashville.
     The lead plaintiff in that case, John Jay Hooker, was twice the Democratic nominee for governor, one of the founders of the Hospital Corporation of America, the publisher of the Nashville Banner, and chairman of the board of United Press International.
     Hooker was recently diagnosed with advanced metastatic cancer, and expects to die of it. He says in the lawsuit that he “believes that as he battles his terminal cancer he should be afforded the comfort of knowing that he has the ability to stop his suffering.”
     Hooker wants to have “the option of aid in dying as he battles his own terminal illness, and he seeks with equal fervor the same right for the voiceless, who are unfortunately [in] similar or in even worse circumstances.”
     Hooker seeks declaratory judgment that the Tennessee law outlawing aid in dying violates the state constitution, and wants his doctors protected from prosecution.
     He is represented by lawyers Hal Hardin and Cynthia Chappell in Nashville.

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