Patient and Five Doctors File Lawsuit Seeking Right to Aid in Dying

A cancer patient and five doctors sued the state in San Francisco Superior Court today to seek clarification on whether physicians can aid mentally competent, terminally ill patients in dying.

The lawsuit was filed against California Attorney General Kamala Harris and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, who are responsible for enforcing a 140-old state law, the Assisted Suicide Statute, that makes it a crime for anyone to assist another person in committing suicide.

The lawsuit claims that the California Constitution provides a right to individual autonomy in medical decision-making, including a right to achieve a peaceful death in the face of a terminal illness.

It asks the court either to declare that seeking a peaceful death in such circumstances is not suicide, and therefore does not conflict with the 1874 law, or to declare that the state Constitution supersedes the law.

Patient Christie White, 53, of San Francisco, said at a news conference, “I am suing the state of California to remove the legal barrier between my doctor and myself to help me achieve a peaceful and dignified death, at the time and place of my choosing.”

White has acute myeloid leukemia and had a bone marrow transplant in 2012. She said she is now in partial remission of the disease, but expects it to recur and that she would not be able to have another transplant or sustain further chemotherapy.

“I want to be in control. I may not end up taking that option (of aid in dying) but I want to have that choice,” White said.

Two of the five doctors who joined in the lawsuit are also patients who said they may be facing terminal illness in the future.

They are anesthesiologist Dan Swangard, 48, who has a neuroendocrine tumor of the pancreas, and obstetrician Robert Liner, 70, who has B-cell lymphoma.

“If my cancer does recur and progresses to a point where, despite my lust for life, I rationally feel that ‘enough is enough,’ I believe I should be recognized as having the right to make that choice for myself,” Liner said.

The other plaintiff doctors are Robert Brody, Marc Conant and Donald Abrams.

Kristin Ford, Harris’ press secretary, said the attorney general had no comment on the case.

The lawsuit was filed by lawyers from the Los Angeles-based Disability Rights Legal Center.

They said the case was brought in the wake of the death of Brittany Maynard, 29, a Bay Area woman with terminal brain cancer who moved to Oregon last year so that she could legally obtain medication that would enable her to die peacefully at the time of her choice.

Maynard, who had become a public advocate of “death with dignity,” died in Portland in the company of her husband and family on Nov. 1 after taking a lethal dose of prescribed medicine.

Nicholas van Aelstyn, a San Francisco lawyer working with the legal center, said today’s lawsuit may eventually go to the California Supreme Court, but said the attorneys will urge state officials to help in moving the case through the legal system without undue delay.

“We hope the state will take the opportunity to work with us and try to resolve this profound issue,” Aelstyn said.

The lawsuit argues that the California Constitution provides a strong right to medical autonomy because the state document, unlike the U.S. Constitution, includes a right to privacy.

Five states currently allow mentally competent, terminally ill patients to seek assistance in dying. They are Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.

Last week, the Disability Rights Legal Center filed a similar lawsuit on behalf of a group of doctors and patients in New York, seeking a declaration of a right to aid in dying in that state.

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

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