Wednesday, October 4, 2023
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Cancer Patients Sue California for Right to Die

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - In the wake of the death of Brittany Maynard, a woman with brain cancer who chose to end her life late last year, three terminally ill cancer patients sued the state of California in San Francisco Superior Court on Wednesday over their right to die at home.

Plaintiffs Daniel Swangard, Robert Liner and Christie White all have cancer that is in remission, but the three also have a high risk of recurrence. Liner and Swangard are also medical doctors.

If their cancers return, they would like the option of ending their lives at home with legal, prescription medication.

White, whose leukemia is in partial remission, says she understands that she would not be eligible for another bone marrow transplant and cannot undergo chemotherapy should her cancer return.

"Ms. White has seen many friends in the cancer-patient community suffer terribly at end of life. She would like to have the option of aid in dying in California. Ms. White does not want to leave her husband, family and friends to move to Oregon, where she could avail herself of that State's aid in dying statute." the complaint says, referring to Maynard's move to Oregon to end her life.

California's current assisted suicide law is ambiguous on the issue of physician-assisted death. The plaintiffs say it violates the free speech and privacy rights of mentally competent, terminally ill patients because the term "suicide" as it is currently interpreted makes doctors who choose to help patients seeking aid in dying vulnerable to prosecution.

"The assisted suicide statute does not expressly address aid in dying with sufficient specificity to ban legitimate medical practice," the patients say. "The potential for prosecution also harms plaintiffs Liner, Swangard and White in that it impairs their access to an end of life option that would bring them comfort and a means to avoid great suffering."

The patients, joined by three doctors, consider aid-in-dying to be an ethical and medically appropriate option. They want an examination of the 100 year-old statute to determine if it was meant to apply to modern circumstances.

Also, the plaintiff doctors say they have treated patients in the past who have asked for their help in dying, but they were deterred by fear of prosecution under the statute.

"This court is called upon to clarify the rights of mentally competent, terminally ill patients regarding just how much suffering they must endure before death arrives, and the intertwined right of physicians to respect, in the exercise of their professional judgment, the wishes of their mentally competent, terminally ill patients who request aid in dying," the complaint says.

The plaintiffs seek an injunction prohibiting California Attorney General Kamala Harris from prosecuting the patients for seeking aid in dying and the doctors for providing the drugs. They also want a clear definition of suicide under state penal code that does not include the actions of terminally ill, mentally competent patients.

They are represented by Nicholas van Aelstyn with Beveridge & Diamond in San Francisco, and Kathryn Tucker with the Disability Rights Legal Center in Los Angeles.

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