As part of the medical oath they take upon entering their profession, doctors promise not to give their patients lethal drugs or advise them to take such drugs. They violate that oath when they assist a patient in committing suicide. That hasn’t stopped some state legislatures, however, including California, from legalizing the practice, thereby transforming what otherwise would be considered murder into something they euphemistically label “medical aid in dying” or “death with dignity.”

When the Golden State passed their version of an assisted suicide law in 2015 – the End of Life Option Act – it at least exempted objecting medical professionals from being forced to participate in the process.

However, as liberal legislators are wont to do when they have a larger agenda in mind, they recently amended the California assisted suicide law, via passage of SB 380, to force doctors with conscientious objections to become part of the process anyway. Now a Christian medical association and a Christian doctor are challenging the new law with assistance from lawyers with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).

The Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA) and Dr. Leslee Cochrane are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging the new requirements. In their complaint filed in federal court, CMDA and Cochrane allege that SB 380 violates their constitutional rights as well as federal guarantees of conscience rights and the American Medical Association’s Code of Medical Ethics.

The original California End of Life Option Act provided the following protection for the conscience of healthcare providers:

Participation in activities authorized pursuant to this part shall be voluntary. Notwithstanding Sections 442 to 442.7, inclusive, a person or entity that elects, for reasons of conscience, morality, or ethics, not to engage in activities authorized pursuant to this part is not required to take any action in support of an individual’s decision under this part.

Notwithstanding any other law, a health care provider is not subject to civil, criminal, administrative, disciplinary, employment, credentialing, professional discipline, contractual liability, or medical staff action, sanction, or penalty or other liability for refusing to participate in activities authorized under this part, including, but not limited to, refusing to inform a patient regarding his or her rights under this part, and not referring an individual to a physician who participates in activities authorized under this part.

However, according to the allegations from the CMDA and Dr. Cochrane, SB 380 redefines the word “participate” as it was used in those conscience provisions, and now forces objecting doctors to become part of the suicide process by requiring them now to:

  1. Document the date of a patient’s initial assisted-suicide request, which counts as the first of two required oral requests;
  2. Transfer the records … to a subsequent physician who may complete the assisted suicide;
  3. Diagnose whether a patient has a terminal disease, inform the patient of the medical prognosis, and determine whether a patient has the capacity to make decisions, all of which are statutorily required steps toward assisted suicide;
  4. Provide information to a patient about the End of Life Options Act;
  5. Provide a requesting patient with a referral to another provider who may complete the assisted suicide.

After SB 380, a failure by an objecting doctor to participate in the process – at least with regard to the steps outlined above – could result in administrative or criminal penalties, professional discipline or a host of other state sanctions.

The CMDA and Dr. Cochrane allege SB 380 violates their First Amendment rights of free speech – because it forces them to advise patients of their right to kill themselves – as well as the freedom of religion upon which their conscience objections are based. They also assert equal protection violations because the California law treats physicians differently based on their participation in the assisted suicide regime created by the state. The lawsuit requests the state be enjoined from enforcing SB 380 against the plaintiffs.

“Our clients seek to live out their faith in their medical practice, and that includes valuing every human life entrusted to their care. Participating in, or referring a patient for, physician-assisted suicide very clearly would violate their consciences,” ADF Senior Counsel Denise Harle, director of the ADF Center for Life, said in a press release. “No health care professional should be forced to act against their religious beliefs and medical ethics, and the state of California is wrong to enforce such coercion.”

Nine other states have assisted suicide laws, in addition to California and the District of Columbia: Colorado, Hawaii, Montana, Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington.

The case is Christian Medical & Dental Associations v. Bonta.

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