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Judge blocks California law forcing doctors to participate in assisted suicide process

assisted suicide
Reuters

A judge has temporarily blocked California from enforcing a law that a Christian medical organization claims would force its members to participate in the process of assisted suicide despite its moral objections.

U.S. District Judge Fernando Aenlle-Rocha granted a preliminary injunction last Friday halting enforcement of a provision of the state's Health & Safety Code.

The 19,000-member Christian Medical & Dental Associations and Dr. Leslee Cochrane sued California over a bill that they say removed conscience protections for medical professionals morally opposed to any form of participation with assisted suicide.

While Aenlle-Rocha disputed the plaintiffs' religious discrimination claims, he believes "they are likely to succeed on their Free Speech claim."

"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," wrote Aenlle-Rocha, an appointee of former President Donald Trump.

The judge's order blocks the state from enforcing the provision requiring a healthcare provider unwilling or unable to participate to "document the individual's date of request and provider's notice to the individual of their objection in the medical record." 

While the provision in question still allows doctors not to perform physician-assisted suicide, the policy requires doctors to document the date of the patient's request for lethal drugs in the patient's medical record and "transfer the records of that first oral request to a second physician upon the patient's request."

Plaintiffs argued that the provision requires objecting healthcare professionals "to discuss, refer for, or otherwise participate in assisted suicide."

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit religious freedom advocacy organization representing the plaintiffs, celebrated the temporary block in a statement Tuesday.

"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.

"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."

In 2015, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed the End of Life Option Act, which took effect in 2016 and made California the fifth state to allow residents to end their lives with doctor-prescribed drugs.

Last October, California passed Senate Bill 380, which opponents said reduced the level of conscience protections for medical professionals opposed to physician-assisted suicide.

In February, CMDA and Cochrane sued California on grounds the new law forces a physician with a patient who requests an assisted suicide to "document the request in that patient's medical record, even if the physician objects to participating in assisted suicide in any way." 

"In sum, the original End of Life Options Act provided broad protection for conscientiously objecting physicians, but SB 380 eliminates or limits that protection," read the suit.

"Plaintiffs desire not to participate in assisted suicide in any way, but they fear penalization under SB 380 and action against their medical licenses if they do not."

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