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Judge tosses California law allowing life-ending drugs

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Matt Fairchild, a 48-year-old retired Army staff sergeant, has been living with Stage 4 melanoma. He says it has spread to his bones, lungs and brain, leading him to take 26 medications a day. 

It pains him to know that choosing life-ending drugs may no longer be an option for people in his position, CBS Sacramento reports.

“It stunned me for a moment, and then it got me angry,” Fairchild said.

A Riverside County judge threw out a law Tuesday that allows adults to obtain a prescription for life-ending drugs if a doctor has determined they have six months or less to live. Superior Court Judge Daniel Ottolia ruled lawmakers illegally passed the law during a special session devoted to other topics, but he gave the state attorney general five days to appeal. 

Alexandra Snyder, an attorney and executive director of Life Legal Defense Foundation, one of the plaintiffs, said Ottolia properly ruled that lawmakers effectively “hijacked” a special legislative session that was called to address access to medical care. 

“Access to health care has no relationship to assisted suicide,” she said, saying passing the law set a dangerous precedent that undermines the legislative process. 

Opponents have argued that hastening death is morally wrong, puts terminally ill patients at risk for coerced death by loved ones and could become a way out for people who are uninsured or fearful of high medical bills. 

Democratic Sen. Bill Monning of Carmel, who carried the original legislation, argued that the bill was properly considered, but said lawmakers could try to pass it again if the law ultimately is rejected by the courts. So far, he said, there has been “not a single report of malfeasance or problems.” 

The judge’s decision came after advocates fought for years to legalize death with dignity.

California health officials reported that 111 terminally ill people took drugs to end their lives in the first six months after the law went into effect June 9, 2016, and made the option legal in the nation’s most populous state. Compassion & Choices, a national organization that advocated for the law, estimated that in its first year, 504 Californians requested prescriptions for medical aid in dying. 

“Our supporters, they’ve frankly expressed shock at this outcome. They’re disappointed that this end of life option could be taken away,” said John Kappos, an attorney representing the organization.

He told CBS Sacramento the ruling likely won’t affect those who currently have the drugs, but would affect others in the future.

Now, it’s up to Attorney General Xavier Becerra to file an appeal to keep existing law in place.

“Once we get past this appeals process, I’m confident this law will stand,” Diaz said.

Attorney General Becerra released a statement saying, “We strongly disagree with this ruling and the state is seeking expedited review in the Court of Appeal.”

Betsy Davis threw herself a party before becoming one of the first people to use the law allowing her to take her own life in 2016. She was 41 when she took a fatal dose of morphine, pentobarbital and chloral hydrate prescribed by her doctor after she was diagnosed three years earlier with ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It slowly robbed her of her ability to use her muscles. 

She would have been devastated by Ottolia’s decision, said her sister, Kelly Davis.

“It gave her back control of her life, it let her die on her own terms,” she said.

“I keep thinking of all the people who are facing a terminal illness and they’re considering the use of this law, and they’re in limbo right now and this right might be taken away from them,” she said.