The latest attempt to shape the right-to-die debate has come in the form of a lawsuit filed by a cancer patient and five doctors with the San Francisco Superior Court.
At present, California has a ban on physician-assisted suicide. Oregon, Washington and Vermont have passed legislation by either the legislature or the ballot box allowing terminally ill patients to obtain lethal doses of medications from their physicians, while New Mexico and Montana gained differing degrees of right-to-die protection from court cases.
Last November, the debate resurfaced with the case of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman who moved to Oregon to take advantage of their assisted suicide law after she found out that she had terminal brain cancer.
Now, California is experiencing the debate on multiple fronts. The new lawsuit joins an effort by legislators to introduce a bill in the California State Senate that would establish an end of life option for terminally ill patients.
In addition, there is speculation that, if either or both of these efforts were to fail, advocacy groups would attempt to get a measure on the ballot for a popular vote, reflecting the success of such initiatives as Oregon’s in 1994 and 1997 and Washington’s in 2008.
Should terminally ill patients be able to obtain lethal doses of medications from their physicians? How can the rights of patients be squared with claims by those who oppose right-to-die legislation that patients would be pushed into assisted suicide? Is a court challenge the best way to enact end of life legislation, or is it just an additional tool for advocates to create change and shape the debate?
Kathryn Tucker, executive director of the Disability Rights Legal Center and the lawyer representing the plaintiffs in this lawsuit
Leo Wallach, Principal at RALLY, an issue advocacy firm that works at the intersection of strategic communications and public policy.