California Patients, Doctors Request to Intervene in Federal Lawsuit to Defend Access to Medical Aid in Dying

Patients, Doctors Urge Court to Dismiss Case Seeking to Invalidate State’s Medical-Aid-in-Dying Law
September 22, 2023
Peter Sussman, one of three interveners in a California lawsuit claiming the state’s revised End of Life Option Act discriminates against people with disabilities.

Peter Sussman, one of three interveners in a California lawsuit claiming the state’s revised End of Life Option Act discriminates against people with disabilities.

Three California patients with disabilities and two California doctors filed a motion Thursday requesting to intervene in a federal lawsuit claiming the state’s revised End of Life Option Act discriminates against people with disabilities. They also filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Their motions are posted at: bit.ly/CAFedDisabilityLawsuitOpposingMotions

The state official defendants filed two separate motions in July to dismiss the case that are pending before the court. The plaintiffs claim that the recently updated California medical aid-in-dying law, which took effect in 2022, discriminates against people with disabilities. The law allows mentally capable, terminally ill adults the option to obtain prescription medication they can decide to take to peacefully end unbearable suffering.

“The plaintiffs’ claim that the End of Life Option Act fails to require that people ‘consider, exhaust, and/or knowingly reject less restrictive alternatives’ contradicts the law’s requirement that an attending physician determine at the threshold that the qualifying individual makes an informed decision by discussing ‘[t]he feasible alternatives or additional treatment options, including, but not limited to, comfort care, hospice care, palliative care, and pain control,’” said Kevin Díaz, chief legal advocacy officer for Compassion & Choices, which filed the motion on behalf of the patients and doctors.

“Our patients seeking to intervene in this case—Burt Bassler, Judith Coburn, and Peter Sussman—will offer the perspective of what aid-in-dying medication means to individuals with disabilities who want to avail themselves of this option to avoid unbearable suffering at their end of life,” said John Kappos, a partner in the O’Melveny law firm who is outside counsel for Compassion & Choices on this case.  “The state defendants cannot offer the perspective of physicians—like Dr. Chandana Banerjee and Dr. Catherine Sonquist Forest—who treat terminally ill patients and who consider medical aid in dying integral to how they practice medicine and provide end-of-life care.”

“At the end of my husband Will’s life, as he began to choke and gasp, despite being 100% mentally aware, medical aid in dying was literally the only option available to alleviate his suffering,” said Dr. Catherine Sonquist Forest, a clinical associate professor of family and community medicine and a public health specialist in Los Altos. “Without medical aid in dying, Will would have suffered immeasurably as he would have died a painful and terrifying death.”

“I have cardiac amyloidosis, also known as stiff heart syndrome, with symptoms that mimic congestive heart failure,” said Pleasanton resident Lambert (Burt) Bassler, 87. “I am doing everything I can to fight amyloidosis. If and when I qualify for medical aid in dying, I would likely fill (but not necessarily take) the prescription to relieve the anxiety that comes from the progression of my disease. Just knowing that option is available helps me cope with the prospect of dying.”

“The particular kind of ovarian cancer that I was diagnosed with has a poor prognosis, is highly resistant to chemotherapy, and generally recurs within two years after removal and chemotherapy,“ said Berkeley resident Judith Coburn, 79, who was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of ovarian cancer called ovarian clear cell carcinoma in 2019. “Knowing that I have the option to die in a peaceful manner relieves so much of the anxiety about whether my cancer will recur or how painful it could be.”

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