California's assisted suicide law shut down in court

When California passed their assisted suicide law in 2015 it was embroiled in more than a little controversy. The usual debates regarding end of life choices between advocates and opponents raged well beyond the bill’s final passage, with court challenges beginning almost immediately. Now, more than two years later, a judge has overturned the law (or will do so in five days barring a successful appeal), but not because of the underlying questions about assisted suicide. It was more of a technicality, challenging how and when the legislature voted on it. (Sacramento Bee)

A judge in Riverside County on Tuesday overturned California’s controversial assisted death law nearly two years after it took effect, ruling that the Legislature improperly passed the measure during a special session on health care funding.

The court is holding its judgment for five days, according to representatives for supporters and opponents of the law, to give Attorney General Xavier Becerra time to file an emergency appeal.

“We’re very satisfied with the court’s decision today,” said Stephen G. Larson, lead counsel for a group of doctors who sued in 2016 to stop the law. “The act itself was rushed through the special session of the Legislature and it does not have any of the safeguards one would expect to see in a law like this.”

Just by way of disclosure, I support assisted suicide laws for the terminally ill and have written about the subject here extensively over the years. But that doesn’t mean that the opponents of California’s law didn’t have some valid complaints which needed to be addressed. The “technicality” they’re dealing with is that the bill failed to pass during the regular session of the legislature and was instead voted on during a special session called specifically to address a funding shortfall for public health programs. While a seemingly minor quibble, it does seem to pose a barrier under the normal rules of order. The argument from supporters is that end-of-life questions are a valid topic relating to healthcare so dealing with it during the special session was appropriate. Clearly, the judge disagreed.

The other complaint raised by opponents of the law was that it failed to provide adequate safeguards against abuse or neglect. They raised questions about the definition of the phrase “terminal illness” and objected to a provision which provided doctors with immunity from prosecution if they prescribed life-ending drugs. These are all difficult questions, but since there had been a debate on those specifics already and the legislature chose to pass the legislation anyway it seems to make a weak case for overturning it.

I still maintain that people who are at the end of their lives with no reasonable prospect of recovery should be able to determine for themselves precisely how much suffering they can endure. And when that limit is reached, competent medical professionals are able to provide a much kinder exit from this life than most of the ones cooked up by desperate people who choose to take their own lives in their homes. Arguments about religion and the morality of suicide are completely valid, but in the end (literally in these situations), that’s something which remains between the patient and God. It seems to me to be rather haughty of anyone to impose their own decisions as if they are speaking for the Almighty.

If the appeal by the California Attorney General fails, this bill may be heading back to the drawing board for another round of debates. That’s not a bad thing since there are probably still areas where it could be improved. But discarding it entirely would be a disservice to patients facing difficulties which the rest of us who have never been forced to stare into the abyss in that fashion are unable to fully comprehend.

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Jazz Shaw 8:31 AM on December 04, 2022