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Dying Mom Asks CA Court to Grant Her Emergency Relief from Unbearable Suffering

(San Diego, CA – Aug. 27, 2015) A dying California single mom filed an emergency petition today asking a state appellate court in San Diego to rule that an 1874 state law prohibiting assisted suicide does not apply to doctors who offer medical aid in dying to terminally ill adults who want this option to end unbearable suffering. Aid in dying gives mentally capable, terminally ill adults the option to request a doctor’s prescription for medication they can take to painlessly and peacefully end an unbearable dying process in their sleep. Read the petition here.

“I do not want to die, but the harsh reality is I only have a few months left to live. I need emergency relief from the unbearable suffering I am virtually certain to experience,” said 47-year-old Christy O’Donnell, the lead plaintiff in the suit, Donorovich-Odonnell v. Harris. She is a Christian, Republican civil rights attorney and former LAPD sergeant who lives in Santa Clarita with her 21-year-old daughter, Bailey.

“I don’t want to die in agony from the cancer ravaging my body,” said O’Donnell, who has been diagnosed with stage IV cancer in her left lung that has metastasized to her brain, liver, spine and rib. She is morphine intolerant and cannot benefit from many of the most common and effective forms of pain relief. “I don’t want my daughter’s last memory of me to be watching me die in agony,” O’Donnell concluded. The video of Christy and Bailey O’Donnell’s story, which was recorded on March 4, is posted at: www.compassionandchoices.org/new-litigation-in-california and bit.ly/ChristyOdonnellVideo

The attorneys in Donorovich-Odonnell v. Harris are seeking emergency judicial relief for Christy O’Donnell now because her death is imminent. They will be seeking judicial relief for the other two patient plaintiffs in the case with advanced cancer, Elizabeth Wallner of Sacramento and Wolf Breimer of Ventura, in the near future.

“The California assisted-suicide law that supposedly prohibits medical aid in dying actually doesn’t prohibit it. It was written in 1874, over a century before this medical option was even contemplated,” said Jon B. Eisenberg, an Oakland-based appellate specialist for Horvitz & Levy LLP, which filed the petition, along with O’Melveny & Myers LLP, Arnold & Porter LLP and Compassion & Choices.

“In 1874, you did not even need a doctor’s prescription for medication,” Eisenberg added. “The legislators back then never intended for this 141-year-old law to apply to physicians who want to offer terminally ill adults the option of prescription medication they can take to end intolerable suffering in their last days of life.”

“The California assisted-suicide law requires direct participation in the person’s death,” said John Kappos, a Newport Beach-based partner in the law firm of O’Melveny & Myers LLP. “The statute was never intended to penalize a doctor who writes a prescription to someone who already is dying from a terminal disease and that allows the person to end their suffering.”

Compassion & Choices won a similar suit asserting other existing state laws and/or state constitutions authorize physicians to offer terminally ill adults the option of medical aid in dying. For example, in Baxter v. Montana, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that: “a physician who aids a terminally ill patient in dying [by prescribing medication] is not directly involved in the final decision or the final act.”

“California courts have ruled the state Constitution’s privacy clause protects the right of a terminally ill adult to end an agonizing dying process by refusing medical treatment, including voluntarily stopping eating and drinking,” said Compassion & Choices National Director of Legal Advocacy Kevin Díaz. “We believe this same constitutional right to privacy applies to medical aid dying.”

“Christy is dying painfully, and her death will likely occur just a few months from now,” said Lynette Cederquist, M.D., a plaintiff from La Jolla who is a board certified physician in internal medicine, hospice and palliative medicine, and a clinical professor of medicine. “As she nears death, her pain may become excruciating, and even the best palliative care may not provide her sufficient relief. I urge the court to grant our emergency request so I can write her an aid-in-dying prescription and she can die gently.”

The suit coincides with the legislative campaign to authorize medical aid in dying in California by passing the End of Life Option Act (ABX2-15). The deadline to pass the End of Life Option Act is Sept. 11. It is closely modeled after the death-with-dignity law in Oregon, which has worked well for 17 years without a single documented case of abuse or coercion. Besides Oregon, there are three other states that currently authorize medical aid in dying: Washington, Montana and Vermont. In addition, a New Mexico appellate court recently overturned a district court ruling last year that aid in dying is a fundamental right under the state constitution, but the case is being appealed to the New Mexico Supreme Court. A June bipartisan poll shows California voters support the medical option of aid in dying by more than a 3-1 margin (69 percent vs. 20 percent).

“Compassion & Choices is pursuing all options to authorize medical aid in dying for terminally ill adults like Christy O’Donnell to bring them relief from extreme suffering before it is too late. We are asking the courts to affirm Californians’ right to access this option and to clarify existing law does not prohibit it,” said Compassion & Choices California Campaign Director Toni Broaddus. “And we are asking the legislature to establish state policy and procedure that allow the practice of medical aid in dying.”

Compassion & Choices is the nation’s oldest and largest nonprofit organization working to improve care and expand choice at the end of life. More information is available at: www.compassionandchoices.org