While disability rights groups from California to New York are pushing back against efforts to legalize physician-assisted suicide, one major disability rights group is going in the opposite direction.
On February 11, the Disability Rights Legal Center filed a lawsuit in the Superior Court of the State of California in the City and County of San Francisco, urging the court to interpret physician-assisted suicide as legal under state law.
“This Court is called upon to clarify the rights of mentally competent, terminally ill patients regarding how much suffering they must endure before death arrives, and the intertwined rights of physicians to respect, in the exercise of their professional judgment, the wishes of their mentally competent, terminally ill patients who request aid in dying.” the DRLC wrote in the lawsuit.
Under a California statute, last updated in 1874, “every person who deliberately aids, or advises, or encourages another to commit suicide, is guilty of a felony.”
The DRLC argues that this statute should not be interpreted to ban physician-assisted suicide, on the basis that the statute does not reference physicians and that the law preceded modern debates on the role of so-called Death with Dignity laws, which exist in Oregon, Washington and Vermont.
At the federal level, the Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the U.S. Constitution does not recognize a right to physician-assisted suicide. DRLC argues that the California Constitution, which contains an explicit right to privacy, provides greater protections, and that the right to physician-assisted suicide is an outgrowth of other previously recognized fundamental rights.
“It is well established under California law that the rights of autonomy and privacy guarantee that terminally ill, mentally competent individuals need not artificially suspend death or undergo unwanted treatment to sustain life that is painful, dehumanizing, or against their will,” the lawsuit states. “The California Constitution’s guarantee of privacy should similarly require that terminally ill, mentally competent persons have the autonomy and self-determination over their own bodies to choose a peaceful death through aid in dying.”
DRLC, along with End of Life Choices New York, filed a similar lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court on February 4, arguing that New York State law should be interpreted as not prohibiting physician-assisted suicide.
In the past two months, a record number of Death with Dignity bills have been introduced in state legislatures, many triggered by the highly publicized saga of Brittany Maynard, a recently married woman who ended her life in November upon the onset of brain cancer.