By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Attorneys for a group of doctors bringing the first legal challenge to California's new law allowing physician-assisted suicide were due in court on Friday to urge a judge to suspend the statute while their case is under review.
Superior Court Judge Daniel Ottolia may also rule on a request by the state and other supporters of the so-called End of Life Option Act to dismiss the lawsuit instead, arguing the doctors lack proper legal standing to bring their case.
The suit was filed in Riverside County, east of Los Angeles, where most of the named plaintiffs practice medicine. They were joined by the American Academy of Medical Ethics, also known as the Christian Medical and Dental Society.
The law in question, based on a similar measure in Oregon, allows terminally ill patients to obtain a prescription for medication to hasten their death so long as two physicians agree the person has no more than six months to live and is mentally competent.
The statute also requires a patient seeking life-ending medical aid to present two separate requests to an attending physician and for two witnesses to attest to the patient's wish to die.
California was the fifth U.S. state to legalize medical aid in dying for terminally ill patients, terminology that advocates prefer over the phrase "physician-assisted suicide." They note that a third of Oregon patients who obtain prescriptions for lethal medication never take it.
At least 30 individuals are known to have obtained a prescription under California's law since it took effect on June 9, according to Compassion & Choices, a group backing the law.
The measure aims to give terminally ill people a medically assisted option to avoid prolonged suffering that conventional palliative care might fail to alleviate.
The bill was strongly opposed by some religious groups, including the Roman Catholic Church, as well as advocates for the elderly and disabled. They argued that unscrupulous caregivers or relatives could pressure vulnerable patients to take their own lives, especially if insurers deny or delay coverage for costly life-sustaining medical treatment.
Supporters, however, say there has never been a documented case of such coercion in Oregon since voters approved that state's law in 1994.
Ottolia was expected to decide Friday on the plaintiffs' motion to set aside the California statute while the case proceeds through the courts.
To win an injunction, the plaintiffs must convince the judge they have a strong likelihood of prevailing on the merits of their challenge.
Their essential argument in the suit is that the law "fails to make rational distinctions" between terminally ill adults and "the vast majority of Californians not covered by the act," thus violating constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process.
However, Compassion & Choices lawyer Kevin Diaz countered that the law "treats all Californians who are terminally ill the same, so there's no violation in it." He also said hundreds of patients a year would be forced to suffer painful and prolonged deaths if the law were suspended, a balance of harm that favors denial of an injunction.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Paul Tait)