California Ban on Doctor-Assisted Suicide Challenged in Court

Brittany Maynard (Maynard family / Associated Press)
Maynard family / Associated Press

In California, advocates for overturning the federal ban on the right to die are adopting a strategy used by right-to-die advocates across the nation; they are filing suit against the state in which they reside.

Such actions have already succeeded in New Mexico and Montana, and now, San Francisco resident Christie White, 53, afflicted with leukemia, has joined with her doctors to ask the state to let her die at home, rather than travel to another state, as Brittany Maynard did when she moved from California to Oregon to receive life-ending treatment for terminal brain cancer.

White’s lawsuit claims that California’s 140-year-old laws regarding the right to die are antiquated and nebulous, and that the ban on the right to die violates patients’ privacy, “personal dignity,” and ability to choose for themselves. Mercury News reported that Kathryn Tucker, White’s attorney from the Disability Rights Legal Center, said, “The point of the case is to bring into focus the reality that (choosing end-of-life treatment) is no kind of suicide.”

The Disability Rights Legal Center website features White writing, “I do not want to have to leave my husband, my family and my friends and move to Oregon. It is time for the State of California to get out of the way and let qualified patients make our own end-of-life decisions.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has already acknowledged that doctor-assisted suicide regulations is a state issue, rather than a federal one, but that decision prevents right-to-die supporters from challenging bans on the practice by claiming a violation of the patient’s constitutional rights.

The San Francisco lawsuit would likely pit right-to-die supporters against Attorney General Kamala Harris and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, who would have to prosecute White’s San Francisco doctors if they helped her die.

In New Mexico last year, a court ruled that the state could not prosecute doctors who acted in a physician-assisted suicide; the case is under review by a state appeals court. In Montana in 2009, the state Supreme Court banned prosecution of doctors helping in end-of-life treatment. In New York, legislators inspired by Maynard’s story created the End-of-Life Option Act, which was brought last week to the legislature.

Tim Rosales, a spokesman for Californians Against Assisted Suicide, said that White’s suit is only the opening salvo in a fight that will eventually allow drugs to hasten death. He said, “From my perspective, this is kind of (like) throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks.”

In January, state Senators Bill Monning (D-San Luis Obispo) and Lois Wolk (D-Davis) introduced a bill similar to Oregon’s law permitting the right to die; the bill will soon be discussed in committee hearings.