Ojai artist Betsy Davis was facing a terrible ending. She had ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a particularly horrible and incurable degenerative disease in which the body’s functions shut down — speech, movement and finally, irrevocably, the ability to breathe.
Rather than endure this punishing fate, she threw a goodbye party for herself this summer before ingesting a fatal cocktail of prescription drugs. She died surrounded by friends and family, and before all her faculties had failed her.
Davis could obtain the prescription legally thanks to a new state aid-in-dying law that took effect June 9. What would most likely have been a scary, painful and nasty ending was transformed into “a reason to celebrate,” her sister wrote.
In the more than two months since California’s End of Life Option Act took effect, an unknown number of terminally ill patients have signed up for a lethal prescription to take control of their final days. We won’t know exactly how many until the state makes its first annual report next year. Anecdotally, however, about 30 people are known to have requested the lethal prescription since June 9, according to Compassion & Choices, an aid-in-dying advocacy group.
But this option may be denied other terminally ill people as soon as Friday, when a legal challenge to the new law comes up for a key court hearing. Riverside County Superior Court Judge Daniel Ottolia is expected to decide whether to put the law on hold until the case is resolved.
If he does, it could be years before the law goes back into effect, if ever, causing needless suffering for untold terminally ill people. Yet that’s what would happen if Ottolia grants the injunction sought by the American Academy of Medical Ethics, several physicians and the Life Legal Defense Foundation, an anti-abortion and anti-assisted suicide group.
The lawsuit claims that the End of Life Option Act violates the civil rights of terminally ill patients by labeling them as such, depriving them of some of the safeguards that protect the lives of other Californians. Furthermore, it alleges that the law is unconstitutional because it was passed in a special session intended specifically to plug a financial hole in Medi-Cal.
It’s a stretch to see how giving all Californians the same right should they become terminally ill can also be a violation of someone’s rights. And while the End of Life Option Act’s route to becoming law was a classic example of how the Legislature circumvents the normal process to pass controversial bills, it doesn’t seem to have violated the state Constitution’s restrictions on special sessions. The proclamation that established the session in question left the door wide open to any healthcare-related legislation.
People are free to sue over laws they feel are unjust, of course. But the concern that the law will result in ailing or disabled people being encouraged or coerced to kill themselves is not supported by facts. There is no evidence to suggest that California’s new aid-in-dying law is bound to be abused.
Indeed, data from Oregon, where a pioneering “Death With Dignity” law has been providing compassionate end-of-life options for almost two decades, indicate that the option is rarely used. Just 1,545 people in Oregon, or less than 0.05% of the state’s population, requested a life-ending prescription from a doctor over the law’s first 18 years, and more than a third of those with prescriptions didn’t use them. But they had the option to do so if the suffering became too great — and that’s the point of aid-in-dying laws.
There are also sufficient safeguards. A doctor has to declare that the patient is terminally ill and has no more than six months to live. A second doctor must agree. The patient must be mentally competent and able to self-administer the medication. There’s a waiting period and a pile of forms to fill out at various points during the process.
In fact, the rules may be too strict. At least, that’s the opinion of one woman who chronicled the daunting and onerous process her dying mother went through to obtain a life-ending prescription under this new law.
We hope the judge will consider that the arguments in this case are based on fears, not reality. Moreover, suspending the law, even just for the duration of lawsuit, would be cruel to Californians trapped in an excruciatingly painful terminal illness who, like Betsy Davis, desire one final measure of control over their life.