California Law Unlawful and Unconstitutional
LOS ANGELES, April 26, 2023 /PRNewswire/ — Today, the United Spinal Association (“United Spinal”), Not Dead Yet (“NDY”), Institute for Patients’ Rights (“IPR”), Communities Actively Living Independent & Free (“CALIF”), and individual plaintiffs, Lonnie VanHook and Ingrid Tischer, filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, asking that California’s End of Life Option Act (EOLOA) be declared unlawful and unconstitutional. The current state law, passed in 2021, permits a physician to prescribe lethal drugs to suicidal patients and removed or weakened many of the supposed “safeguards” in the original law. Death by suicide can now be fast-tracked in 48 hours and doctors who have professional, moral, or ethical objections to writing a lethal prescription for a patient now must participate in the EOLOA process. EOLOA, by design, is unregulated by any California public entity, leaving patients and their loved ones at grave risk of harm and without recourse.
“The State of California needs to be stopped from running a deadly and discriminatory system that steers people with disabilities towards death by suicide under the guise of mercy and dignity in dying and away from the necessary mental health care and disability accommodations they deserve and are entitled to under the law,” said Michael Bien co-founding partner of Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP. Van Swearingen, Kara Janssen, and Michael Nuñez from the firm join Mr. Bien in representing the plaintiffs as well as co-counsel Haben Girma. “The laws violate federal anti-discrimination laws and the Constitution. A public health system that fails to provide equal access to minimally adequate mental health care, hospice, palliative care, and independent living should not be empowered with a license to kill as a cheap alternative.”
The lawsuit states that the defendants, including the Governor of California and other state officials, and agencies, operate systems that, under the current law, treat people with life-threatening disabilities differently than less and non-disabled people when it comes to expressions of suicidality and supplying appropriate mental health and medical care. Information in the filed lawsuit includes:
- Publicly reported data from over 2,000 patients in the U.S. who used Physician-Assisted Suicide show that they sought help in killing themselves from their doctors primarily out of disability-related fears of losing their autonomy, dignity, abilities to engage in activities they used to enjoy, control of bodily functions, and becoming a burden on caregivers.
- Every person who qualifies for lethal drugs under EOLOA is a person with disabilities under federal law.
- Physician-Assisted Suicide makes it easier for heirs, family members, and untrustworthy caregivers to pressure a person with life-threatening disability to end their life, with no questions asked and without consequence.
- Assisted suicide has been used to cut costs everywhere it is legalized. In states where the practice has become legal, there have been several documented instances when financially motivated insurers denied people access to life saving or life extending treatment, such as chemotherapy, while offering to provide a lethal prescription instead.
- People of color, especially those who are economically marginalized, are more likely to be steered towards suicide by their providers, who may view their lives as less worthy of preservation due to the combined forces of racism and ableism. Research has documented Black, Asian, and Hispanic persons regularly experience “barriers to palliative/hospice care utilization.” A 2016 JAMA Internal Medicine study found that hospice patients were less likely to be visited by staff in their last two days of life if they were Black. Even more alarming, California nursing facilities with higher numbers of Black and Latino residents have “had higher rates of death.” Stopping California’s assisted suicide law is both a disability rights and health equity issue.
Plaintiff Ingrid Tischer of Berkeley, California is disabled, having muscular dystrophy, a degenerative neuromuscular condition, that’s led to quadriplegia. She uses a wheelchair and BiPap machine, and says, “Biased attitudes and disability discrimination are not new to me but assisted suicide policies undermine my trust in the system when I’m at my most fragile. My own doctor recently challenged my quality of life while I was hospitalized with pneumonia and newly diagnosed with depression and denied me some rehab services based on a faulty diagnosis. For a brief time, I bought into the idea assisted suicide was my best option. Fortunately, my spouse steered me away from assisted suicide toward mental health care and physical recovery. But I’m scared now in a way I never have been because legalized assisted suicide is destroying my already-shaky faith in healthcare systems.”
“Due to the many barriers to access I face as a black quad, I have been in some dark places – so dark that I had planned to die by assisted suicide,” says plaintiff Lonnie VanHook, U.S. Navy veteran from Oakland, California, who suffered a spinal cord injury and is paralyzed from the neck down. “Thankfully, my personal relationship with a physician saved my life, but this law makes me feel like my life, as a disabled person, is seen as not worth living by so many in society, even though I have lived independently for decades. And that is a pressure for sure.”
Vincenzo Piscopo, President and CEO of the United Spinal Association, says, “Many of our members are vulnerable to suicide and victimized by Physician-Assisted Suicide statutes, especially while they are adjusting to living with paralysis. They need long-term services and support to live a meaningful life and assistance in mourning the loss of their former abilities. Instead, they may be provided with lethal medications. With the proper peer support and mental health care, most of us come to see that there is life after our injury. Assisted suicide laws make it far too easy for a system stacked against us to provide a cheap, easy way out.”
Currently, California is one of nine states and the District of Columbia that have legalized Physician-Assisted Suicide where a patient’s perceived physical health, i.e., disability status, is the sole legal determinant of whether their doctor must help them live or may help them die.
The lawsuit asks the Court to declare that the California law violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, Sec. 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and is unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses. The lawsuit asks that the Defendants be preliminarily and permanently enjoined from enforcing the California law.
For more information, please find filing here: https://endassistedsuicide.org/complaint
Selected Media Coverage:
Disabled lives are worth living, Washington Examiner, April 30, 2023
Disability groups say California’s assisted suicide law discriminates against them, NPR, April 26, 2023
Disability groups sue to overturn California’s physician-assisted death law, Kaiser Family Foundation Health News, April 25, 2023
About United Spinal Association
Formed in 1946 by paralyzed veterans, United Spinal is a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit membership organization dedicated to empowering people with spinal cord injuries and disorders (SCI/D), including veterans, to live successful and fulfilling lives. Membership is free and open to all individuals with SCI/D, with over 60,000 members across 49 chapters, close to 200 support groups and more than 100 rehabilitation facilities and hospital partners nationwide. Known for its revolutionary advocacy efforts, United Spinal played a significant role in writing the Americans with Disabilities Act, provided important contributions to the Fair Housing Amendments Act and the Air Carrier Access Act, and was instrumental in attaining sidewalk curb ramps and accessible public transportation in New York City, which created the standard accessibility model used in many United States cities. For more information visit: https://unitedspinal.org/
About Communities Actively Living Independent & Free
Communities Actively Living Independent & Free (CALIF) is an independent living center, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization that provides advocacy programs and services for people with disabilities primarily residing within the 50 zip codes of Los Angeles County covering south and central Los Angeles and neighboring communities. For more information visit: https://calif-ilc.org/
About Not Dead Yet
Not Dead Yet is a national, grassroots disability rights group that opposes legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia as deadly forms of discrimination against old, ill, and disabled people. Not Dead Yet helps organize and articulate opposition to these practices based on secular social justice arguments. Not Dead Yet demands the equal protection of the law for the targets of so called “mercy killing” whose lives are seen as worth-less. For more information visit: https://notdeadyet.org/
About Institute for Patients’ Rights
The Institute for Patients’ Rights, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) that conducts research, educates the public, and works to expand and implement tools of empowerment for older adults, people with disabilities, marginalized persons, and their families to combat policies and medical practices that devalue some people’s lives, putting them at greater risk of deadly harm . For more information visit: https://instituteforpatientsrights.org