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California Court Allows Suit to Overturn Medical Aid-in-Dying Law to Go to Trial

End-of-Life-Option Group Remains Optimistic Court Ultimately Will Uphold Law

Compassion & Choices National Director of Legal Advocacy Kevin Díaz and outside counsel John Kappos at news conference outside Riverside Superior Court.

A California superior court today ruled that a lawsuit to overturn the California End of Life Option Act will proceed to trial to determine the merits of the case (see Ahn vs. HestrinCase RIC1607135). For now, the one-year-old End of Life Option Act remains in effect because the court previously rejected the plaintiffs’ motions for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction.

The law gives mentally capable, terminally ill adults with six months or fewer to live the option to request and obtain a doctor’s prescription for medication they can decide to take to die peacefully in their sleep when no other palliative care treatment relieves their unbearable suffering.

The plaintiffs — Life Legal Defense Foundation, American Academy of Medical Ethics and several physicians — filed the lawsuit against the California Attorney General and Riverside County District Attorney the day before the End of Life Option Act took effect on June 9, 2016. The lawsuit claims the law violates the due process and equal protection guarantees of the U.S. and California constitutions because it fails “to make rational distinctions” between terminally ill adults “and the vast majority of Californians not covered by the Act.” The suit also claims the legislature did not have the legal authority to pass the law during a special session on health care.

Last July, the court accepted a friend-of-the-court brief urging it to deny the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction filed by the O’Melveny law firm on behalf of Compassion & Choices, a national organization promoting end-of-life choice that successfully advocated for the legislature to pass the law. The brief asserted that if the End of Life Option Act was overturned, terminally ill Californians “will be forced to live through painful and prolonged deaths.”

“We are disappointed in the court’s ruling today, but we are relieved the law remains in effect for now because the overwhelming majority of Californians across the political and religious spectrum support this end-of-life option,” said John C. Kappos, a partner in the O’Melveny law firm representing Compassion & Choices. “Ultimately, we are confident the court will rule the legislature duly passed the End of Life Option Act and it is a perfectly valid law.”

Earlier this month, Compassion & Choices released a report showing that at least 504 Californians have received prescriptions for medical aid in dying over the last year.

“Overturning the End of Life Option Act would have devastating consequences for terminally ill Californians and their families,” said Kevin Díaz, national director of legal advocacy for Compassion & Choices. “While we respect the plaintiffs’ personal opposition to the law, they don’t have to participate in it. They certainly should not be able to take away the ability of other doctors to offer this option to dying patients to peacefully end their suffering.”

California is one of six states — including Colorado, Montana, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington — as well as the District of Columbia, that have authorized medical aid in dying. Collectively, these seven jurisdictions represent nearly one out of five Americans (18%).