Assisted suicide advocates take their fight to the courts with lawsuit

The lawsuit names Attorney General Kamala Harris as a defendant.
The lawsuit names Attorney General Kamala Harris as a defendant.
Richard Vogel/AP

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An organization that’s lobbying for a bill that would legalize doctor-assisted suicide in California has filed a lawsuit that claims the current ban on the practice violates the state constitution. 

Compassion & Choices filed the lawsuit in San Diego County Superior Court Friday on behalf of three terminally ill people and a palliative care doctor. The lawsuit names Attorney General Kamala Harris and the district attorneys of Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento counties as defendants.

The plaintiffs argue that the California Constitution and existing state law already permit doctors to provide patients assistance with dying and that doctors should face prosecution for prescribing fatal medication to terminally ill patients who want it. 

Specifically, they point out that doctors are legally able to stop life-sustaining treatments in certain situations and that the law permits them to provide patients who request it "terminal sedation." That practice involves sedating a person into unconsciousness until his body gives out and he dies.

Plaintiffs argue there is no valid distinction between doing those permitted practices and prescribing lethal medication.

State law (Penal Code Section 401) makes it a felony for anyone to aid, assist or encourage the suicide of another. 

The lawsuit asks the court for declaratory and injunctive relief that would protect doctors who prescribe life-ending drugs to mentally competent, terminally ill patients who request them.  

The attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Californians Against Assisted Suicide and other opponents of physician-assisted suicide fear any change in the law would create the potential for abuse, especially against the disabled and the economically disadvantaged.

The lawsuit is the second filed this year on behalf of terminally ill patients and doctors who are seeking to overturn the state ban on assisted suicide. 

Compassion & Choices filed the suit while it is lobbying on behalf of SB 128,  which would make physician-assisted suicide legal in California.  

Five states now permit the practice.