Cancer Patient and Doctors Sue in San Francisco for Right to Die

Friday, February 13, 2015
Christie White (photo: CNN)

Arguing that physician-assisted death for terminally-ill people isn’t suicide, a cancer patient and five doctors asked a Superior Court in San Francisco to make it clear that those patients who take their own life aren’t breaking California law.

The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit (pdf) filed this week, 53-year-old Christie White, has been battling Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and leukemia for seven years. She is in partial remission, but fears having to move to Oregon, where physician-assisted death has been legal since 1994, should her condition worsen. 

“I am asking the state of California to remove the legal barrier between my doctor and myself to help me achieve a peaceful and dignified death at the place and time of my choosing,” White said at a press conference.

The suit, which was filed by the Disability Rights Law Center (DRLC) on behalf of White and the doctors, seeks a ruling that California’s assisted-suicide statute does not apply to cases where “physicians provide aid in dying to mentally competent, terminally-ill patients.”

The 140-year-old law currently states: “Every person who deliberately aids, or advises, or encourages another to commit suicide, is guilty of a felony.” The lawsuit argues that suicide is a decision to end one’s life, but that determination has already been made for terminally-ill patients. They are just seeking a painless way to execute the death sentence that nature has bestowed upon them.

The lawsuit seeks to protect doctors from being prosecuted for helping ill patients. ThinkProgress reported that three other cancer patients joined the lawsuit. State lawmakers introduced Senate Bill 128 last month to accomplish the same thing.

Besides Oregon, Washington and Vermont have right-to-die laws that describe a protocol for the practice. Montana protects physicians from prosecution but does not have a protocol. A New Mexico judge ruled last year that terminally-ill patients have a constitutional right to die, but that is being challenged by the state’s attorney general.

Some opponents of right-to-die express a fear that the elderly, infirm and other vulnerable people might coerced into ending their lives prematurely. Others invoke religious objections. 

The issue received a lot of publicity four months ago and sparked a national debate when 29-year-old Brittany Maynard ended her life in Oregon rather than suffer a horrible death from brain cancer. She spent her final days making a spirited defense of the right to die.

The issue hasn’t had this much attention since Michigan’s Dr. Jack Kevorkian took his impassioned plea for the right to physician-assisted death to the public airways and helped at least 130 patients end their lives. He was arrested in 1999 and convicted of second-degree murder. Kevorkian served eight years of 10-to-25-year sentence and died in 2011.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Cancer Patient Sues for Right to Doctor-Assisted Death (by Dan Whitcomb, Reuters)

Cancer Patients Sue for Their Right to Pursue Doctor-Assisted Death (by Tara Culp-Ressler, ThinkProgress)

Cancer Patients, Doctors Sue to Allow Physician-Assisted Death for Terminally Ill (by Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times)

Supporters Increase Push for California Aid-In-Dying Bill (by Laurel Rosenhall, Sacramento Bee)

Robert Brody, MD et al v. Kamala D. Harris (City and County of San Francisco Superior Court) (pdf)

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