Appeals court reinstates California’s physician aid-in-dying law, at least for now

At least for now, California's physician aid-in-dying law is in effect. (Getty/KatarzynaBialasiewicz)

While a legal battle goes on, a state appeals court has reinstated California’s physician aid-in-dying law, at least temporarily.

The Fourth District Court of Appeal in Riverside issued an immediate stay (PDF) on Friday putting the law back into effect. The court decision puts physicians on firm footing to help terminally ill adults who request prescription medications to end their lives.

Litigation over the law goes on, however, since the court gave opponents until July 2 to file objections.

The End of Life Option Act had been declared unconstitutional by a judge last month because it was voted on by the California legislature during a special session. A series of rulings created confusion for patients, their families and physicians about the status of the law, which allows a terminally ill adult with six months or less to live to obtain prescription drugs from a doctor.

RELATED: Suspension of California’s aid-in-dying law leaves sick patients in limbo

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed legal action asking the appeals court to stay the judge’s May ruling and praised the latest action. “This ruling provides some relief to California patients, their families and doctors who have been living in uncertainty while facing difficult health decisions,” Becerra said in a statement. “Today’s court ruling is an important step to protect and defend the End of Life Option Act for our families across the state.”

Compassion & Choices, an advocacy group, represented two terminally ill adults and a physician in their request for an automatic stay to immediately suspend the lower court action to invalidate the law.

“This stay is a huge win for many terminally ill Californians with six months or less to live because it could take years for the courts to resolve this case,” Kevin Díaz, national director of legal advocacy for Compassion & Choices, said in a statement. “Thankfully, this ruling settles the issue for the time being, but we know we have a long fight ahead before we prevail.”

RELATED: Doctors divided, AMA to continue to study physician aid-in-dying

The Life Legal Defense Foundation, American Academy of Medical Ethics and several physicians were among those who filed a lawsuit to have the law overturned.

The lawsuit—filed the day before the law took effect on June 9, 2016—says the law violates the due process and equal protection guarantees of the U.S. and California constitutions because it fails “to make rational distinctions” between terminally ill adults “and the vast majority of Californians not covered by the act.” The lawsuit also argues that the legislature did not have the authority to pass the law during a special session limited to specific healthcare issues.

Physician-assisted dying, also called physician-assisted suicide, has divided doctors over ethical issues. Last week, with its members arguing for and against physician-assisted dying, the American Medical Association voted to continue to review its stance on the issue. A recommendation that the AMA maintain its opposition to medical aid-in-dying was voted down, with delegates at the group’s annual meeting in Chicago voting to continue to review its guidance on the controversial issue.

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