In another setback for California advocates of medical aid in dying, a California Superior Court judge indicated Friday he would dismiss a case challenging the state's law against the practice, also known as physician-assisted suicide.
“You're asking this court to make a new law,” said San Diego Superior Court Judge Gregory Pollack. "If a new law is made it should be by the Legislature or by a ballot initiative.”
The lead plaintiff in the case, Christy O'Donnell, is dying of cancer and sought to gain the right to end her life through physician-prescribed medication. O'Donnell is morphine-intolerant, meaning she cannot benefit from many of the most common forms of pain management, according to the lawsuit.
Plaintiffs in the case said Friday they plan to appeal.
“We are hopeful an appeals court will recognize the rights of terminally ill adults like Christy O'Donnell, who are facing horrific suffering at the end of their lives that no medication can alleviate, to have the option of medical aid in dying,” said lead plaintiffs' attorney John Kappos, a partner for O'Melveny & Myers, in a statement.
Aid-in-dying advocates aren't seeing much movement in the state's Legislature either. A California bill to legalize aid in dying passed the Senate in June but has since stalled. Advocates had hoped the story of Brittany Maynard, a young California woman with brain cancer who moved to Oregon to take a legal prescription to end her life, would inspire reforms around the country.
But change, so far, has been slow going despite lawmakers in more than 20 states introducing legalization bills this year. Among victories for advocates, the California Medical Association dropped its opposition to aid-in-dying legislation earlier this year, and the Canadian Supreme Court recently ruled it legal as well.
Opponents of the practice, including the American Medical Association, say it's incompatible with doctors' roles as healers, could be difficult to control and poses risks to vulnerable individuals.
"We're very pleased to see the judge's ruling," said Marilyn Golden, a senior policy analyst with the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund who opposes physician-assisted suicide. "Where assisted suicide is legal some people's lives are lost without their consent through mistakes and abuse."
Aid in dying is now legal in five states, including Oregon and Washington, where voters approved ballot initiatives; Vermont, where the Legislature passed a law; and Montana and New Mexico, where it was legalized as a result of court cases brought by doctors and patients. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that there is no constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide, leaving the issue up to individual states.
Some have speculated that advocates of the practice might have a better chance of winning through the courts than state legislatures, where passing bills can be time-consuming and costly.
A separate case challenging the law in California, filed by the Disability Rights Legal Center, is still pending. Kathryn Tucker, executive director of the center, is optimistic the center's lawsuit will have more success.