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California Laws Governing Assisted Suicide Remain in Limbo

A major part of estate planning is deciding how you wish to address quality-of-life issues if and when you suffer a terminal illness. Under current California law, a person has the “right to control the decisions relating to his or her own health care, including the decision to have life-sustaining treatment withheld or withdrawn.” The most common means of exercising this control is through a California Advance Health Care Directive.

While a doctor must honor your decision not to receive life-sustaining treatment, he or she may not assist you in ending your life, such as by providing prescriptions drugs designed to hasten death. Existing California law expressly disapproves of “mercy killing, assisted suicide, or euthanasia.” Indeed, a physician may be held criminally liable for assisting a patient’s death.

The End of Life Option Act

However, the law in this area is in flux. On October 5, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed the End of Life Option Act, a law permitting terminally ill patients to request a physician prescribe an “aid-in-dying drug” to enable them to die “in a humane and dignified manner.” The California legislature passed the Act during its ongoing special session to address healthcare issues. In a signing statement, Gov. Brown noted the ongoing political and ethical controversy over assisted suicide, but noted if he was dying and in extreme pain, “it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill,” and he could deny the same right to other California residents.

That said, Californians still do not have these options as of this writing. Because the legislature passed the Act during a special session, it cannot take effect until 90 days after the session formally adjourns. While this must occur no later than November 2016, it is unlikely to take place until at least January 2016, meaning patients currently suffering from a terminal illness are out of luck. The California Attorney General has also said there is a campaign to place a voter initiative on next year’s ballot to overturn the End of Life Option Act. This means it is possible the law will never take effect.

Terminally Ill Patients Denied Early Relief

Given this uncertainty, a number of patients presently suffering from terminal illnesses sued the Attorney General and several local prosecutors, including the San Diego district attorney, seeking a declaration that any physician who prescribed life-ending drugs to them would not face criminal prosecution under current California law. Among other things, the plaintiff-patients argued the current ban violates their right to privacy under the federal and state constitutions. The plaintiffs also suggested the court allow them to proceed as if the End of Life Option Act has already taken effect.

On October 29, the Court of Appeals of California, Fourth District, denied the plaintiffs’ requests. While the court expressed “great compassion for plaintiffs,” the judges found their legal arguments baseless. It is up to the legislature, not the courts, to legalize and regulate assisted suicide.

Need to Speak With an Estate Planning Lawyer?

You may have many questions regarding the ongoing changes to California’s laws governing end-of-life care. An experienced California estate planning attorney can help explain how these potential changes may affect your own situation. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady in San Diego today if you would like to speak with someone today.

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