Cancer Patients Sue For Their Right To Pursue Doctor-Assisted Death

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

A group of cancer patients and physicians are suing the state of California on behalf of terminally ill patients, arguing that people who are going to die should have the right to seek lethal medication from their doctor if the suffering becomes too much.

In California, helping another person commit suicide is a crime. The plaintiffs in the suit believe this law shouldn’t apply to terminally ill people, arguing that their right to determine the circumstances of their death doesn’t count as “suicide.”

Lead plaintiff Christine White, who has been battling aggressive leukemia for the past seven years, says she’s suing to remove the legal barrier that prevents her doctor from helping her “achieve a peaceful and dignified death.” Although White’s cancer is currently in remission, she wants to be able to plan for her death if her health ends up deteriorating in future years. She doesn’t want to die in a hospital.

“I’m not so blind as to ignore the very real possibility that my leukemia may return,” White said during a San Francisco news conference to announce the legal challenge. “I do in fact expect that it will find its way to sneak back into my life, and for me at that point I will have very limited choices.”

Attorneys for the Disability Rights Legal Center, a group that advocates for “empowering dying patients with the privacy and liberty to make autonomous decisions about their own body,” filed the lawsuit on behalf of White. Three other cancer patients joined the suit, along with five doctors in the San Francisco area who support patients’ right to physician-assisted suicide.

While the term “physician-assisted suicide” may conjure images of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the now-infamous doctor who used carbon monoxide to euthanize more than 100 patients, the process looks a little different in practice. In the handful of U.S. states that have approved “aid-in-dying” laws, doctors are able to prescribe a lethal dose of medication to terminally ill patients. The dying individuals can keep the pills at home and choose when they want to ingest them. According to one study that examined data from Oregon, the majority of patients never actually follow through.

But proponents of so-called “death with dignity” say that simply having the option available makes all the difference. Dr. Robert Brody, one of the plaintiffs in the new lawsuit and a physician at the Pain Consultation Clinic at San Francisco General Hospital, described giving patients access to lethal medication as “the key to get out of what feels like a locked room.”

The legal challenge comes just a few months after Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old San Francisco resident diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, relocated to Oregon to take advantage of the state’s law in this area. After obtaining a prescription for the drugs to end her life, Maynard said it provided her great relief to know she didn’t have to wait for her brain tumor to kill her. She decided to end her life in November, after her story successfully sparked a national conversation about death with dignity.

Advocates of aid-in-dying laws hoped that Maynard’s advocacy efforts would help propel forward the largely stalled movement for physician-assisted suicide. Now, there’s at least some movement evident in her home state. Last month, California lawmakers introduced a bill to authorize doctors to prescribe aid-in-dying medication to patients who meet certain conditions.

The issue of doctor-assisted suicide has long been controversial among both medical professionals and the public, but support has recently been inching up. According to a large survey of more than 21,000 medical professionals conducted last fall, the majority of doctors now support allowing patients suffering from an “incurable illness” to seek “a dignified death.” About 70 percent of the general public agrees that a doctor should be allowed “to end the patient’s life by some painless means” at the patient and their family’s request.