Judge's Ruling Threatens California's Assisted Suicide Law

Lawmakers approved bill during a special session. Now that process has been challenged.


Drug needle
Emilija Randjelovic /

California's assisted suicide law is in jeopardy after a judge ruled Tuesday that state lawmakers had passed it improperly.

The state legislature passed the End of Life Option Act in 2015, and it launched at the start of the following year. It allows doctors to prescribe drugs at patients' request to end their lives if they have terminal illnesses and less than six months to live.

The law was challenged in court in Riverside County in 2016 by some doctors and the Life Legal Defense Foundation.The plaintiffs object to the moral implications of assisted suicide, and they argued that the law doesn't adequately protect terminally ill people by requiring psychiatric evaluations before they are provided life-ending drugs. The law requires that two physicians determine that the patient is mentally competent.

Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Ottolia did not determine whether or not assisted suicide is itself permissible under California law. Rather, he ruled that lawmakers violated the state's constitution by passing the bill during a special session called by Gov. Jerry Brown to deal with health care issues.

You might think a bill authorizing assisted suicide would fall under "health care issues." That's how Compassion & Choices, a nonprofit group supporting end-of-life choices, reacted in a press release, saying that the court misinterpreted the constitution "because medical aid in dying is a recognized health care option."

But a review of Brown's proclamation for the special session shows it wasn't generically about "health care issues." The purpose of the session was narrowly stated to focus on health care funding, health care rate increases, and the state program Medi-Cal. There was nothing in the order to hint at the idea that setting policies for end-of-life care was on the agenda.

So it's possible to support assisted suicide yet still understand the judge's point here that lawmakers overstepped their bounds by pushing this bill through in an unrelated special session.

The judge gave the state five days to file an appeal. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra tells the Los Angeles Times the state disagrees with the judge's ruling and will be seeking an expedited review.

Ultimately, even a negative decision here will probably just be a legislative bump in the road. Polls show that a good two-thirds of the public support physician-assisted suicide. If the law didn't pass under the appropriate procedures, lawmakers can pass it again. That will be unfortunate, though, for terminally ill people who might end up suffering through the gap.