A Santa Clarita Woman is one of three Californians with terminal or advanced diseases who are asserting that the California constitution and existing state law allow the medical practice of aid in dying.
Compassion & Choices filed suit on Friday on behalf of the three Californians.
Medical aid in dying gives mentally competent, terminally ill adults the option to request a doctor’s prescription for medication they can take in their final days to end their dying process painlessly and peacefully, ending unbearable pain and suffering.
“Some dying people face unbearable suffering in their final days that even the best hospice and palliative care cannot relieve,” said Compassion & Choices National Director of Legal Advocacy Kevin Díaz, who also worked with death-with-dignity advocate Brittany Maynard. “As Brittany Maynard recognized, these people desperately need the option of medical aid in dying so they can die painlessly, peacefully in their sleep – and they need it now – before it’s too late.”
In conjunction with filing the suit in California Superior Court in San Diego County, Compassion & Choices released a new video featuring Christy O’Donnell, the lead plaintiff, who has a terminal prognosis of less than six months to live.
She is a Christian, Republican civil rights attorney who lives in Santa Clarita and is a former sergeant in the LAPD.
Despite receiving chemotherapy every week for the last nine months, O’Donnell’s physicians have told her that she will likely die painfully within the next few months from lung cancer that has spread to tumors in her brain, spine, ribs and liver.
The video of her story is posted here and here.
“The most likely way that I’m going to die with the lung cancer is that my left lung will fill with fluid, I’ll start drowning in my own fluid,” says O’Donnell in the video, which was recorded on March 4. “I spend an inordinate amount of time being afraid of the pain that I’m going to endure. All of that time that my mind spends thinking about that, I am not living. I don’t want to die [but] I should be able to get a prescription [for aid-in-dying medication], have that peace and never think about it ‘til the day I’m ready to die.”
“The situation is urgent for terminally ill Californians like Christy because they cannot afford to wait for relief from unbearable suffering in their last days,” said Lynette Cederquist, M.D., a plaintiff from La Jolla who is a board certified physician in internal medicine as well as hospice and palliative medicine, and is a clinical professor of medicine.
“We will be requesting expedited review on behalf of Christy because her cancer has spread and causes her more pain and suffering each day,” said John Kappos, a Newport Beach-based partner in the law firm of O’Melveny & Myers LLP, who is working in conjunction with Compassion & Choices on behalf of the plaintiffs. “We are pursuing multiple legal theories to authorize medical aid in dying to maximize our chances of bringing immediate relief and peace of mind to terminally ill Californians like Christy.”
The suit also asserts that medical aid in dying is a more peaceful alternative to palliative sedation. Palliative sedation involves medicating the patient into a coma and withholding nutrition and fluids until the patient dies. Both the U.S. Supreme Court and California courts have recognized palliative sedation as a legitimate medical practice. The suit is posted here.
The suit coincides with the legislative campaign to authorize medical aid in dying in California by passing the End of Life Option Act (SB 128), recently approved by the Senate Health and Judiciary Committees. SB 128 is closely modeled after the death-with-dignity law in Oregon, which has worked well for 17 years, without a single documented case of abuse or coercion.
Currently, four other states authorize medical aid in dying: Washington, Montana, Vermont and New Mexico. A recent poll shows that California voters support the medical option of aid in dying by more than a 2-1 margin (64 percent vs. 24 percent).
“We must pursue every path to make medical aid in dying an option for terminally ill adults in California as soon as possible,” said Compassion & Choices California Campaign Director Toni Broaddus. “Even if the court finds authorization in the state constitution and/or existing state law for medical aid in dying, the legislature should establish additional safeguards and legal protection for this medical practice in the state of California by passing the End of Life Option Act as soon as possible.”
The deadline to pass the End of Life Option Act in the Senate is June 5. If the Senate passes the legislation, the deadline for the Assembly to pass it is Sept. 11.
The second patient plaintiff is Sacramento resident Elizabeth Wallner, who has stage IV colon cancer that has metastasized to her liver and lungs. She has fought the cancer with 18 rounds of weeklong chemotherapy treatments that made her “mind-bendingly sick,” four surgeries to remove parts of her liver and colon, radiation, radio-ablation, and any other method that offers even the slightest hope of extending her life. Elizabeth and her family, including her 19-year-old son and her Catholic father, support her end-of-life wishes, including the option of aid in dying.
“No one would want to live through unbearable pain,” said Elizabeth. “Quite frankly, one simply can’t understand it until they are faced with the reality.”
The third patient plaintiff is Wolf Breiman, a retired landscape architect from Ventura who was diagnosed six years ago with an incurable cancer of the white blood cells called multiple myeloma.
Although he is coping with fatigue and a compromised immune system, Wolf continues to work in his yard daily. He and his wife, Debbie, are staunch supporters of end-of-life options for all Californians.
“I see it as an expansion of individual rights by giving people more autonomy,” said Wolf. “I am 87 years old. I’m OK with death. I just don’t want to go out in misery.”
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