Explainer: Discrimination lawsuit filed against California’s assisted suicide law

July 13, 2023

In 2016, California’s assisted suicide law called the “End of Life Option Act” was passed which allows terminally-ill patients who meet specific criteria to request lethal drugs from their physician to end their life. The law requires patients to receive clearances of mental competency and terminal status from two doctors and undergo a waiting period before acquiring the drugs. The 15-day waiting period was shortened to only 48 hours by a 2021 revision to the law. 

A lawsuit brought by a collection of disability rights groups and two individuals with disabilities alleges that California’s assisted suicide law discriminates against people with disabilities and minorities, who often fail to receive proper diagnosis and medical treatment. The petitioners in the case explain that the law “steers people with terminal disabilities away from necessary mental health care, medical care, and disability supports, and towards death by suicide under the guise of ‘mercy’ and ‘dignity’ in dying.”

What is the case against California’s assisted suicide law about?

Ingrid Tischer was born with muscular dystrophy, which has required her to seek medical attention her entire life. Unfortunately, Tischer contracted pneumonia in 2021, leaving her especially weak. When she requested therapy to regain her strength, the doctor denied her request saying, “Well, I mean, look at you, there’s nothing we can do for you. And you’ve known this is coming for a long time. So why are you surprised?

Tischer is just one victim of what the plaintiffs call “steering,” the effect on disabled and terminal patients who have difficulty receiving the care they need. The result may compel people to seek assisted suicide to reduce their perceived “burden” on their families, doctors, or the healthcare system. While the doctor did not directly recommend assisted suicide to Tischer, his response implied she was untreatable and unworthy of any other assistance.

The other individual plaintiff, Lonnie VanHook, has quadriplegia and requires around-the-clock care. VanHook says he could not get the necessary hours of medical assistance he needed, which left him depressed, even considering assisted suicide. VanHook is a victim of “attendant deficiency diagnosis.” Medical care was the solution to VanHook’s depression, not suicide.

Proponents of California’s assisted suicide law say that safeguards are in place to prevent non-terminal patients, like VanHook, from accessing lethal drugs to end their life. However, some have challenged this notion, citing the 2021 revision to the law that reduced the waiting period from 15 days to 48 hours and the eradication of other protections as leaving more people vulnerable.

The lawsuit claims the End of Life Option Act violates equal protection and due process laws in the 14th Amendment and the anti-discrimination provisions in the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. The disability rights groups argue that while the coercion is not explicit, the healthcare system’s shortcomings for people with disabilities can implicitly push them toward choosing assisted suicide. 

What is assisted suicide?

The term “assisted suicide,” or “physician-assisted suicide,” is the act of ending one’s life through prescribed lethal drugs to cease the suffering caused by a terminal illness or incurable disease. 

It was first introduced in the United States in Oregon when the 1997 Right-to-Die law was enacted. Since then, 10 states and the District of Columbia have implemented laws allowing assisted suicide. Canada has also legalized what they call, “Medical Aid in Dying,” or MAID, a superficial term for assisted suicide that dilutes the gravity of the undertaken action.

What is the issue?

Assisted suicide laws create significant life and human dignity issues that reflect our society’s larger disregard for the value of life. Genesis 1 tells us that we were created by God and possess inherent worth. With such a respect for life, we have been commanded, “Thou shalt not murder” (Exo. 20:13). The Hebrew word “ratzah,” translated as “murder” in the passage, includes death caused by carelessness and negligence. While assisted suicide is not direct murder, individuals involved are intentionally assisting in taking a dignified life created by God. 

Doctors are sworn to the Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm,” but what greater harm is there to a living patient than to help them end their life? Individuals with disabilities and those experiencing mental health crises should be met with care and compassion—not with encouragement to end their life.

A former lawsuit against the law filed by a coalition of Christian doctors protected them from assisting in the suicide of patients because of their deeply held religious beliefs. While the religious liberty of these doctors should be protected for valuing the lives of their patients, the existence of this law continues to devalue the life and dignity of terminally ill individuals and those with and disabilities.

What happens next in the lawsuit against California’s assisted suicide law?

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. Central District Court of California at the end of April and creates a potential avenue for sweeping changes to assisted suicide laws around the country. This challenge would likely spend a long time in the court system because of the appeals process. The ERLC will be closely watching this important case.

Why is this important to Southern Baptists?

As Southern Baptists, we recognize that every person is created in the imago Dei, possessing immeasurable worth and requiring the utmost dignity. This principle applies equally to every person, regardless of sex, race, ethnicity, or even quality of health and ability. We are called, as Christians, to advocate for the vulnerable like those who are told they are better off ending their lives than living through severe and terminal health complications.

Proponents of assisted suicide erroneously refer to it as “dying with dignity.” However, they fail to see that preserving the individual’s dignity is best achieved by showing them the value of their life amid their trials. Our circumstances do not dictate our worth; it is etched into every individual through God’s design.

In our efforts to care for the vulnerable, we should work to improve the healthcare system so that it provides ethical means of relieving suffering and dignity to those nearing the end of their lives. This does not mean aiding and abetting thoughts of suicide induced by wanting an end to suffering. James 1:2-4 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” While persevering through trials can feel like an unendurable challenge, we should come alongside those in their suffering and show them their worth in Christ. 

As pro-life advocates, we commit to promoting all life from conception to natural death. We must advocate for vulnerable individuals who are preyed upon by a society that tells them their lives have no worth. We strive for a day when the dignity of every individual is recognized by a society that embraces a culture of life.

Timothy Mackall

Timothy Mackall serves as a public policy intern helping represent Southern Baptists in the nation's capital. He is studying political science at Elizabethtown College with plans to pursue a masters degree in public policy. He lives in Maryland where his family planted CrossLife Community Church and loves serving there in … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24