Cancer Patients, Doctors Sue State to Allow Aid in Dying

Brittany Maynard, 29, terminally ill with brain cancer, ended her own life on Nov. 1, 2014 in Oregon. (Compassion and Choices/BrittanyFund.org)
Brittany Maynard, 29, terminally ill with brain cancer, ended her own life on Nov. 1, 2014, in Oregon.
(Compassion and Choices/BrittanyFund.org)

Cancer patients and doctors are suing the state of California to allow physicians to prescribe lethal medication to terminally ill patients who request it. The lawsuit was filed Wednesday, just three weeks after lawmakers proposed an "aid in dying" bill.

"I want to be in control of my life and die a peaceful death here in California, which is my home," said Christie White, a plaintiff in the case.

She spent two years in the hospital battling leukemia. She's in partial remission now, but the sense of helplessness she felt during her treatment haunts her. She says she's suing the state so she can have more say over when and where she dies.

"It's time for California to get out of the way and let qualified patients like me make our own end-of-life decisions," she said.

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White says the state constitution guarantees rights to privacy and free speech that protect the choices she makes with her doctor.

Attorney Nico van Aelstyn says the lawsuit also challenges a 19th century state law, which makes it a felony to help another person commit suicide.

"Of one thing I am sure," says van Aelstyn, "the Legislature of 1874 did not contemplate the terrible end-of-life scenarios that our modern medical system has made commonplace."

Several groups are opposed to aid in dying, including disability rights advocates, who fear the practice could be abused by family members or health insurance companies.

Five other states allow aid in dying, including Washington, Oregon, Vermont, Montana and New Mexico. The courts authorized aid in dying in the latter two states.

Kathryn Tucker, an attorney with the Disability Rights Center in Los Angeles, argued the cases in Montana and New Mexico and is serving as co-counsel on the California case. She said the court system presents better chances of success for legalizing aid in dying, compared with legislative efforts.

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“It’s very uncertain whether this is something that can be accomplished legislatively,” she said, citing several failed attempts in the past to pass a bill or a voter initiative in California. "We’re hopeful the court will fulfill what is quintessentially the court’s responsibility, not the Legislature’s, which is to determine the scope of existing law."

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