California's Assisted Suicide Law Overturned as Christian Mom Once Offered Lethal Drugs Celebrates

Life Legal Foundation attorneys with Stephanie Packer (back row - C) and her children.
Life Legal Foundation attorneys with Stephanie Packer (back row - C) and her children. | (Photo: Life Legal Foundation)

A Christian mother who was offered a lethal dose of suicide pills as alternative treatment for her terminal cancer a week after California's physician-assisted suicide law went into effect almost two years ago, celebrated on Tuesday when a state judge overturned the law calling it unconstitutional.

"I am so grateful that California's assisted suicide law was overturned today. The bill's proponents tout dignity, choice, compassion, and painlessness. I am here to tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. Choice is really an illusion for a very few. For too many, assisted suicide will be the only affordable 'treatment' that is offered them," the mother, Stephanie Packer, 35, said.

Judge Daniel A. Ottolia of State Superior Court in Riverside ruled that California's End of Life Option Act, which allows physicians to prescribe lethal drugs to patients they deem have six months or less to live, was passed in an unconstitutional manner, according to the Life Legal Defense Foundation.

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A week after California's physician-assisted suicide law went into effect on June 9, 2016, however, Packer who is a mother of four got a letter from her health insurance company advising her that the doctor-recommended chemotherapy treatment for her lung and related cancer the company had previously promised was now being denied. She was later informed that her plan would cover a lethal dose of suicide pills at a cost of $1.20. The insurance company only backed down after Packer went public with her story in the media.

Along with plaintiffs, the American Academy of Medical Ethics and several physicians, the Life Legal Defense Foundation challenged the California's physician-assisted suicide law, arguing that it lacks safeguards to protect against abuse and that suicide does not provide healthcare.

"We are pleased with today's ruling, which reinstates critical legal protections for vulnerable patients," Life Legal Defense Foundation Executive Director Alexandra Snyder said in a statement on the ruling. "The court made it very clear that assisted suicide has nothing to do with increasing access to health care and that hijacking the special session to advance an unrelated agenda is impermissible."

California's attorney general, Xavier Becerra, told NBC News that he would appeal the ruling immediately.

"We strongly disagree with this ruling and the state is seeking expedited review in the Court of Appeal," Becerra said in a statement.

State Sen. Bill Monning, who co-authored the law also expressed dissatisfaction, claiming that if the ruling is upheld it would violate people's rights.

"The court order, if allowed to stand, would invalidate people's rights," he said. "Gov. Jerry Brown signed the law, it passed both houses, it went through hearings. There were no shortcuts."

George Eighmey, national board president of the nonprofit Death With Dignity argued that as the court battle unfolds, people who want to die will be forced to place their death on hold.

"There might be people in the process of getting medication being placed on hold," Eighmey said. "And dying people can't be placed on hold."

In the first year that the law became effective, Monning said some 111 people in California have chosen to end their lives.

The mission of Life Legal is to give innocent and helpless human beings of any age, particularly unborn children, a trained and committed defense against the threat of death, and to support their advocates in the nation's courtrooms.

In a Tuesday statement on Facebook, Packer expressed confidence that Judge Ottolia's ruling will stand.

"We are certain that the ruling will be sent to the Appellate court, but we are fairly certain that the ruling will stand! I would like to thank everyone who has worked to fight for the vulnerable and fight against our culture of death! From the bottom of my heart, THANK YOU LIFE LEGAL for working tirelessly to give a voice to those suffering from a terminal condition," she said.

Despite objections from religious leaders, doctors and disability rights advocates, Brown, California's lifelong Catholic governor who once flirted with becoming a Jesuit priest, signed the state's controversial physician-assisted suicide bill into law

In a letter to members of the California State Assembly discussing his decision on the bill, ABX2 15, Brown, a Democrat, explained that he didn't think it should be a crime for "a dying person to end his life."

"The crux of the matter is whether the state of California should continue to make it a crime for a dying person to end his life, no matter how great his pain or suffering," Brown wrote in the letter.

"I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain. I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I wouldn't deny that right to others," he ended after discussing his process in coming to the decision.

The state's physician-assisted suicide bill was approved on Sept. 11, 2015 after an earlier version championed through the highly publicized case of 29-year-old Brittany Maynard failed earlier that year. Maynard, who was from California, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer but was had to move to Oregon to end her life because assisted suicide was illegal in her state.

Physician-assisted suicide is now currently legal in five states and Washington D.C.

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