California has agreed to settle a lawsuit and pay $300,000 to an organization of Christian doctors and dentists who challenged a new provision in the state's aid-in-dying law they said would violate their religious beliefs.
A federal judge ruled May 17 that doctors who oppose assisted suicide will not be required to document a terminally ill patient's request for life-ending medication and refer to another doctor for the medication.
The Christian clinicians objected to the documentation requirement because it counted as one of the two oral requests required for a qualified patient to obtain aid-in-dying drugs under the law, according to their claim filed last February.
"This is a significant victory for religious and conscientious physicians in California. The government can't force any health care professional to act against his faith or medical ethics,” said Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel Kevin Theriot, who represented the plaintiffs, a Christian hospice physician and the Christian Medical & Dental Associations.
The litigation is one of a number of lawsuits recently filed by doctors in California and around the country regarding rights to free speech and religious expression.
Physicians and advocates including an anti-vaccine group filed two lawsuits claiming another California law violated their free speech rights. Under that law — temporarily halted while the lawsuits proceed — doctors could face medical board sanctions for communicating COVID-related misinformation to patients.
In Arkansas, two physicians joined a lawsuit challenging the state's law that would prohibit clinicians from referring or providing transgender care. And physicians in April sued Idaho's attorney general over free speech and other constitutional rights after a legal opinion suggested they could not refer patients for out-of-state abortions.
The provision in California's aid-in-dying law was unconstitutional because "it violates objectors' freedom of speech by requiring them to take part in implementing the law,” despite their objections to assisted suicide, US District Judge Fernando Aenlle-Rocha of Los Angeles, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, ruled last September. He halted enforcement of the provision while the lawsuit proceeded.
Aenlle-Rocha cited the Supreme Court's 2018 ruling that said California violated the free-speech rights of anti-abortion clinics called "crisis pregnancy centers” by requiring them to notify their patients that the state makes abortions available to low-income women at little or no cost, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
What Led to the Aid-in-Dying Lawsuit
The lawsuit was filed after an amendment to the 2015 California End of Life Option Act took effect in January.
Under the 2015 law, which legalized physician-assisted suicide in the state, physicians could voluntarily participate in a patient's aid-in-dying requests and refuse for "reasons of conscience, morality, or ethics.”
The 2015 law also provided legal immunity to individual physicians who refused to engage in activities such as providing information about the law or referring an individual to a clinician who prescribes aid-in-dying medication, according to the legislation.
The new law allowed state officials to impose criminal or civil penalties, including professional discipline or a licensing sanction, on a California-licensed physician who refused or failed to document a request, refer a patient, or assist a patient in any way with ending his life.
Under the settlement, state officials agreed to not enforce the documentation and referral requirements against objecting physicians, in addition to the paying the plaintiffs $300,000 for attorney's fees.
Christine Lehmann, MA, is a senior editor and writer for Medscape Business of Medicine based in the Washington, DC area. She has been published in WebMD News, Psychiatric News, and The Washington Post. Contact Christine at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @writing_health
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Cite this: Christian Doctors Claim Victory in Lawsuit Over State Aid-in-Dying Law - Medscape - Jun 06, 2023.