A federal judge has ruled that a California law requiring all doctors, even those with conscience or ethical objections, to participate in the assisted suicides of their terminally ill patients violates the free speech provisions of the First Amendment.
California’s assisted suicide law, passed in 2016, originally allowed doctors to refuse to participate in any manner with patients’ requests for help in ending their lives. However, in 2021, the California legislature amended the law so that even if a doctor refused a patient’s request to assist with their suicide, the doctor’s “refusal” itself became an official part of the required “two-doctor” consultation paper trail allowing the patient to ultimately die by another doctor’s hands.
Christian doctors argued in a First Amendment lawsuit that being forced to participate in the process, even via the medical paper trail that ends in an assisted suicide, violates the religious conscience and/or ethical concerns of many California medical practitioners.
That, according to U.S. District Judge Fernando L. Aenlle-Rocha, likely violates the First Amendment rights of objecting doctors, justifying a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of the law’s provisions against the group that brought the lawsuit, the Christian Medical and Dental Association (CMDA), and its members.
“This documentation can then be used to satisfy one of the two oral requests required to obtain aid-in-dying medication,” Judge Aenlle-Rocha noted in his ruling. “The ultimate outcome of this requirement is that non-participating providers are compelled to participate in the Act through this documentation requirement, despite their objections to assisted suicide.”
The 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision in National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra figured prominently in Judge Aennle-Rocha’s decision in favor of the Christian doctors in this case. The NIFLA decision ruled that in a case involving a different California statute, a state law requiring pro-life organizations to promote abortion in violation of their conscience constituted “government compelled” speech, forbidden by the First Amendment.
CMDA is represented in this case by attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and Life Legal Defense Foundation.
“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 physician-assisted suicide very clearly would violate their consciences,” said ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot in a press release. “We’re pleased the court followed the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in NIFLA v. Becerra that clarified First Amendment protections extend to religious medical professionals.”
According to the latest data as of July 2021, California reported 1,816 individuals have died from ingesting doctor-prescribed medications as allowed under the law.
Jonathan Keller is the president of the California Family Council, an ally of Focus on the Family. In an email to the Daily Citizen, Keller applauded the news of the injunction.
“A doctor’s first oath has long been to do no harm,” Keller said. “California’s deadly experiment with assisted suicide violates this most fundamental obligation. We are grateful to our friends at ADF for fighting to protect the freedom of healthcare professionals to care, not kill.”
Physicians are obligated, under the profession’s Hippocratic Oath, to heal illness, alleviate suffering, and provide comfort and encouragement to their patients, but they are specifically prohibited from giving any deadly medicine. Not only does the California assisted suicide law condone a practice that was once considered anathema, but forcing doctors to participate in the process against their conscience makes a mockery of their constitutional rights as well. Hopefully, Judge Aennle-Rocha’s ruling will be upheld at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, if the state appeals.
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