A San Francisco Superior Court judge on Friday upheld the enforcement of California laws dating back 141 years barring physician-assisted suicide after hearing arguments in a lawsuit filed by several terminally ill patients.
Several plaintiffs including Christy O'Donnell and her Bay Area doctor, Robert Brody, brought the San Francisco lawsuit asking that doctors be allowed to provide such treatment to patients who are mentally competent without fear of prosecution.
O'Donnell, who was in the courtroom Friday, cried openly outside the courtroom after Judge Ernest Goldsmith made his decision, but said she doesn't want her tears to be misinterpreted as hopelessness.
"I am not hopeless," said O'Donnell, a mother and former police officer and civil rights attorney who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. She added that she is even more confident now that the law will change in California.
She said she doesn't want other terminally-ill patients to be forced to endure slow, painful deaths while their families watch.
Defending the law, California Attorney General Kamala Harris' office wrote in recent court papers, "California law prohibits assisted suicide without exception."
"While plaintiffs pose many difficult policy questions worthy of public debate, it is for the Legislature, not this court, to grapple with
these important policy issues," the state attorney general's said in court documents.
O'Donnell disagrees, saying it is an injustice and a civil rights issue that the court should take on.
Goldsmith said he felt that by granting the petition he would be creating a judge-made law without input from constituents. He agreed the legislature would be better equipped to take on the issue.
The judge repeatedly expressed concern Friday about the possibility that, if the law was changed, a patient who is suffering financially from a terminal illness would be able to choose to die simply because their family wasn't able to afford their continued medical expenses.
Plaintiff's attorney Nicholas W. van Aelystyn said that the lawsuit asks only for patients with terminal illnesses, regardless of their financial situations, to be given the right-to-die.
Kathryn Tucker, also a plaintiff's attorney in the lawsuit and the executive director of the Disability Rights Legal Center, said today that while the judge declined to give O'Donnell and patients like her the relief that they sought, there remains great public support for assisted dying in California.
She said the case brought attention to problems with the 141-year-old statute regarding patients' rights in the dying process and their constitutional right to autonomy.
Tucker said she is considering taking the case to the appellate court for review and would likely decide within a week.
One of the plaintiffs in the case, terminally ill patient Angie Bloomquist, who died prior to the case being heard by the judge, has a memorial service scheduled for Sunday.
Tucker said that Bloomquist, who no longer had motor skills prior to her death, communicated her wish to be involved in the lawsuit with the help of a machine that reads her eye movements.
Tucker said the lawsuit sought extraordinary relief in the form of a preliminary injunction that would have brought relief to patients like Bloomquist.
"She was not able to achieve a death consistent with her wishes and she died a horrible death," Tucker said.