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Judge Overturns California's Right-To-Die Law

A California judge has overturned the state’s right-to-die law, which allows terminally ill people to take their own lives with the aid of a physician. 

Judge Daniel A. Ottolia of the Riverside County Superior Court ruled Tuesday that the End of Life Option Act, which Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed into law in 2015, was passed improperly and was therefore invalid. The plaintiffs argued that the legislature had violated the state constitution by passing the law during a special session called specifically to handle matters of health care funding ― and not end-of-life issues.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) has five days to challenge the decision before it goes into effect. A spokesperson for Becerra didn’t immediately return a request for comment on whether he plans to file an emergency appeal. 

Advocates for the law said they are optimistic that an appeals court will overturn Ottolia’s ruling.

“We respectfully believe the Court misinterpreted the application of the state constitution to this law because medical aid in dying is a recognized health care option,” said John C. Kappos, an attorney representing Compassion & Choices, a leading advocacy group for the “death with dignity” movement. Kappos added that “the strong majority of Californians support” the law.

Opponents of the law were pleased with Tuesday’s results. The Life Legal Defense Foundation, one of the advocacy groups that challenged the law in court, said the judge’s ruling “reinstates critical legal protections for vulnerable patients.”

“The court made it very clear that assisted suicide has nothing to do with increasing access to health care and that hijacking the special session to advance an unrelated agenda is impermissible,” Alexandra Snyder, the group’s executive director, said in a statement. 

The California law, which went into effect in 2016, allows terminally ill patients who have been given a prognosis of six months or less to live to obtain a prescription for a lethal dose of medication. It’s still up to individual doctors and hospitals to decide whether they will offer this option to patients.

While some opponents have voiced concerns over potential abuse, the law has several built-in safeguards. Two doctors have to sign off on the patient’s prognosis, and the patient must make the request for lethal medication once in writing and twice verbally, with at least 15 days between the requests. The patient must also be considered mentally stable and capable of making decisions about their own health. 

The legislation was inspired by California resident Brittany Maynard, who made national news in 2014 by moving to Oregon to end her own life after she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer at age 29. 

“I am heartbroken that I had to leave behind my home, my community and my friends in California. But I am dying and I refuse to lose my dignity. I refuse to subject myself and my family to purposeless, prolonged pain and suffering at the hands of an incurable disease,” Maynard told lawmakers in a video message she recorded before her death in late 2014.

According to a state report, 111 terminally ill Californians exercised their right to die in the first six months after the law went into effect. The state has not released data on how many people have opted for lethal medication under the law since then. 

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