California Medical Aid-in-Dying Law Still in Effect, Despite Appeal Court Ruling

May 24, 2018

Kevin Diaz, National Director of Legal Advocacy for Compassion & Choices

Compassion & Choices downplayed a preliminary ruling by the 4th District Court of Appeals to deny a “stay” request to suspend a lower court ruling to invalidate the End of Life Option Act, noting the law remains in effect and patients can still access it. The Court further ordered that the plaintiffs explain why the Attorney General should not prevail on his arguments.

Similar to laws in Washington, D.C. and six other states, the California law gives mentally capable, terminally ill adults with six months or less to live to the option to request prescription medication they can decide to take to end unbearable suffering and die peacefully in their sleep.

The appellate court ruling said:

“The parties are ordered to SHOW CAUSE before this court why the relief prayed for should not be granted. Real parties in interest may file a formal return within 25 days of the date of this order. Petitioners shall have 15 days from the date of the filing of the return in which to file a traverse. The parties will be notified when the matter is set for oral argument.”

“It is important to note the ruling did not invalidate the law or the court would have said so explicitly in its order, so the law remains in effect until further notice,” said John C. Kappos, a partner in the O’Melveny law firm representing Compassion & Choices, which led the campaign to pass the law. “The court did not rule on the appeal of the lower court ruling itself.”

“Physicians still are protected under the law to write prescriptions for their terminally ill patients who want the end-of-life care option for medical aid in dying to peacefully end intolerable suffering,” said Kevin Díaz, national director of legal advocacy for Compassion & Choices, which filed an amicus brief in the case two years ago. “This preliminary ruling is just one step in what promises to be a long legal battle, so people should not change their current treatment plans because of it.”

Last Tuesday, Riverside County Superior Court Judge Daniel Ottolia granted a motion to invalidate the law because he claimed the legislature violated the state constitution by passing it during a special session limited to health care issues. He gave Attorney General Xavier Becerra five days to file the emergency request to reverse his ruling in the case, Ahn vs. HestrinCase RIC1607135.

“The enactment fell within the scope of the special session called, in part, to consider efforts to ‘improve the efficiency and efficacy of the health care system … and improve the health of Californians,’” says the attorney general’s appeal filed in the 4th District Court of Appeal. “As the Governor indicated, the Act deals with pain, suffering, and the comfort of having the health care options afforded by the Act.”

Polling shows 76 percent of Californians across the political and demographic spectrum support medical aid in dying. This majority support includes 82 percent of Democrats, 79 percent of independents, 67 percent of Republicans, 75 percent of whites, Latinos and Asian Americans, and 52 percent of African Americans.

Last June, Compassion & Choices released a report estimating that 504 Californians have received prescriptions for medical aid in dying since it took effect on June 9, 2016. Last July, the California Department of Public Health released a report showing 191 terminally ill Californians received prescriptions from 173 doctors for aid-in-dying medication during the nearly seven month period from June 9, 2016 until Dec. 31, 2016; 111 of those individuals (58%) decided to self-ingest the medication.

California is one of seven states — including Colorado, Montana, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and Hawai‘i — as well as the District of Columbia, that have authorized medical aid in dying. Collectively, the populations of these eight jurisdictions represent nearly one out of five Americans (19%).

Compassion & Choices
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