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Assisted-Suicide Advocates also Fighting in Courts

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July 15, 2015

Having fallen short of winning the California legislature’s approval for physician-assisted suicide, advocates for the highly controversial practice are now are focusing on the courts.  Other end runs are probably also in the works

"Compassion and Choices," which has been working to legalize doctor-prescribed suicide medication for decades, has been employing a multi-prong approach this year, including legislation (which is failing passage around the nation), initiative campaigns and lawsuits.

A key case is scheduled for its first hearing in a San Diego court on Friday, July 24.

Compassion and Choices, aided by one of California’s largest law firms, filed the suit with Christie O’Donnell, 46, as lead plaintiff.  A Los Angeles County resident, O’Donnell suffers from brain cancer that has spread to other parts of her body. The suit seeks to allow a doctor to prescribe medicines that will kill her. The hearing is scheduled for July 24, her birthdate.

At the core of the case is California Penal Code Section 401, which succinctly states that “Every person who deliberately aids, or advises, or encourages another to commit suicide, is guilty of a felony."

Although O’Donnell is featured in media coverage, the central plaintiff in the case may be Dr. Lynette Carol Cederquist, a UC San Diego internist and pain specialist.

The court petition says of Cederquist: “She does not provide Aid in Dying because she fears prosecution under Section 401…If Aid in Dying treatments were lawful in California, she would be willing to write a prescription for medication to terminally ill, competent adults who, at their own discretion, could exercise the option to self-administering the drug.”

A favorable ruling for O’Donnell would enable Dr. Cederquist, and possibly other so-inclined medical doctors, to prescribe medication to cause death without fear of repercussion.

Defendants in the case are California law enforcement officials legally responsible for enforcing PC 401, most prominently California Attorney General Kamala Harris, plus the district attorneys of Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento counties. Harris has refused to talk about physician assisted suicide.

O’Donnell testified in favor of SB 128, the doctor-assisted suicide bill, in March. In late June she embarked on a media campaign, including an interview with TV anchor Katie Couric.

O’Donnell describes herself as a conservative Christian. She has said that she does not want to move to Oregon, where doctor-prescribed death meds is legal, because it would disrupt her 21-year-old daughter’s life.

Two other plaintiffs in the case are Elizabeth Wallner of Sacramento and Wolf Brieman of Ventura, both suffering from cancer.

Brieman was diagnosed with incurable blood cell cancer six years ago.  It is unclear whether SB 128 would have applied to him since the bill specifies that death must be predicted to be within six months for a doctor to be allowed to legally prescribe death-causing medication.

In several other states assisted suicide lawsuits are pending, seeking to skirt the legislative process and remove provisions of state laws that make suicide assistance a crime.

In February three people in New York State, Steve Goldenberg, Sara Myers and Eric Seiff, filed suit seeking to allow their doctors to provide death meds.  Goldenberg has suffered from AIDS for 20 years; Myers was diagnosed with ALS four years ago; and Seiff suffers from bladder cancer.

When it was filed New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan said “The real death with dignity, the real heroes are those who die naturally, who take each day at a time, savoring everything they’ve got.” http://www.catholicendoflife.org/

In Nashville, Tennessee, a judge is considering a petition to allow doctors to prescribe death medicines. Tennessee’s Attorney General defends the current prohibition on doctor-assisted suicide, saying that it is not a constitutionally protected right.

Efforts to establish a “right” to doctor aid in suicide have surfaced in the legal system for years.

But there is a clear federal standard that doctors should not help patients commit suicide. It was established 18 years ago in a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision.

The 9-0 decision in 1997 (Vacco v. Quill) by the nation’s highest court ruled that there is no constitutional right to take one's own life with the assistance of a physician. In the decision, the court distinguished between a person’s decision to not take life-prolonging treatments, which it found acceptable, versus helping another person actively to cause death.