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

california's assisted suicide law

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.

california's assisted suicide law

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