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Doctors Want Physician-Assisted Suicide Now, Before Lawsuit Is Decided

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 (Photo by Andrey Popov)

Three doctors who care for terminally ill patients will go to court in San Francisco Friday to ask a judge to allow physician-assisted suicide immediately, while their case seeking to legalize the practice is pending.

The doctors, along with four patients, filed the lawsuit in February to challenge California law (Section 401 of the penal code), which makes it a crime to deliberately help someone commit suicide. They argue the law is 140 years old and ambiguous.

“Doctors are not providing aid-in-dying because they're afraid to; they're afraid of being prosecuted,” said Nico van Aelstyn, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

He requested the preliminary injunction to allow the doctors to begin prescribing lethal medication to terminally ill patients who request it, without interference from law enforcement.

The doctors say their patients don’t have time to wait for the lawsuit to work its way through the courts, and that they need relief now.


The lead plaintiff, Angie Bloomquist, suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and wanted her doctor, Robert Brody, also a plaintiff, to prescribe her the fatal medication, so she could take it when she wanted and control the circumstances of her death. But she died earlier this month before the court could rule.

“This is truly an instance where justice delayed was justice denied,” van Aelstyn said. “While we acted as fast as we could, it was not fast enough to provide relief for Angie. Should the next patient of Dr. Brody’s suffer the way Angie did?”

Lawyers from the state attorney general’s office, the defendants in the case, argue that the law is clear. Physician-assisted suicide is illegal in California, and these three physicians should not be exempt from the law before a trial is complete.

They say that the plaintiffs want to change existing law, a matter they say is better decided by lawmakers in the state Capitol or by voters.

“While plaintiffs pose many difficult policy questions worthy of public debate, it is for the Legislature, not this Court, to grapple with these important policy issues,” the defendants wrote in a legal brief.

A second lawsuit challenging the same state law was recently dismissed by a judge in San Diego, on these same grounds. Plaintiffs in that case vowed to file an appeal.

Lawmakers did propose a bill (SB 128) to legalize physician-assisted suicide in California, but it was tabled earlier this summer.

Physician-assisted suicide is legal in four states: The practice was authorized by the courts in Montana, by the legislature in Vermont, and by voters who approved ballot measures in Washington and Oregon.

A court authorized physician-assisted suicide in New Mexico in 2014, but a higher court overturned that ruling August 11. The plaintiffs said they plan to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

This post has been corrected to reflect the recent New Mexico Court of Appeals decision. 

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