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Circuit Court Dismisses Medical Aid-in-Dying Case

July 16, 2017, 7:47 AM HST (Updated July 16, 2017, 7:52 AM) · 5 Comments
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Oʻahu circuit judge dismissed a lawsuit asking the court to prevent existing Hawaiʻi criminal laws from being applied to medical aid in dying practices.

The State Attorney Generals office says that in its decision, the court relied upon state legal precedent that prohibited it from issuing such relief.

Legislation was introduced this year to legalize medical aid in dying in Hawaiʻi and establish a regulatory process under which an adult resident of the state with a medically confirmed terminal disease may obtain a prescription for medication to be self-administered to end the patient’s life.

The bill was deferred on March 23, 2017.

Noting that the legislation generated 2,613 pages of testimony and comments, the court said “this underscores that the relief sought by the plaintiffs is political, not judicial, in nature and should be addressed by the political branches of government.”

Meantime, a terminally ill Hawai`i man plans to appeal a ruling by a state court judge who dismissed his lawsuit that asserts the state constitution and existing state statutes allow doctors to practice medical aid in dying. Supporters of Medical aid in dying say it gives mentally capable, terminally ill adults the option to get a doctor’s prescription for medication they can decide to take to die peacefully in their sleep to end unbearable suffering.

On Friday, July 14, one day after a hearing in the case on Thursday, July 13, First Circuit Court of Hawai`i Judge Keith K. Hiraoka ruled the case did not pass the legal requirements to proceed. The court felt bound by the Hawai‘i Supreme Court’s procedural ruling from a 2015 case and noted that whether this case raised special circumstances that would justify declaratory relief “is for the appellate courts to decide.”

“I do not have the luxury of time to appeal this ruling, but I have no other choice but to pursue it,” said lead plaintiff John Radcliffe, a Honolulu resident who has incurable colon cancer that has metastasized to his liver. Mr. Radcliffe had major surgery on July 10, has undergone 48 rounds of chemotherapy, has been to the emergency room 15 times, and has had three extended hospital stays. “I am hopeful the court ultimately will confirm the legality of medical aid in dying because it will give me the peace of mind knowing I won’t have to needlessly suffer at life’s end and I can die peacefully.”

“I know from professional experience that medical aid in dying is a necessary palliative care option to end suffering for terminally ill patients when no other palliative treatment can provide relief,” said Dr. Charles Miller, a board certified physician in internal medicine, medical oncology, and hematology who practices in Honolulu. “Most terminally ill patients won’t need this end-of-life option, but they would get great comfort knowing they could use it if they need it.”

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According to a Nov. 2016 statewide survey by Anthology Marketing Group, 80% of Hawai`i voters support medical aid in dying, across all demographics, including age, ethnicity, religion and geographic location.

The Hawai`i legislature decided not to pass the Medical Aid in Dying Act (SB 1129) during the 2017 session.

“The situation is urgent for the untold number of dying people like John Radcliffe in Hawai`i, who face intolerable suffering,” said John-Anderson L. Meyer, Esq., a director of the Honolulu law firm Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing, which represents the plaintiffs on behalf of Compassion & Choices. “We are currently reviewing the court’s ruling and will evaluate all available options, including an appeal.”

“We will consider an appeal of this ruling because our suit actually complements the Hawai`i legislative campaign to pass Hawaii’s Medical Aid in Dying Act,” said Mary Steiner, Hawai`i campaign manager for Compassion & Choices. “We remain 100 percent committed to helping our legislative champions enact Hawai`i’s Medical Aid in Dying Act into law as soon as possible.”

“The reality is that no one knows how long it will take to complete the legislative or legal processes,” said Kevin Díaz, Esq., national director of legal advocacy for Compassion & Choices. “But we would be shortchanging dying Hawaii residents like John Radcliffe, who also has testified in support of Hawaii’s Medical Aid in Dying Act, if we put all of our eggs in one basket, and did not consider appealing this ruling.”

Compassion & Choices won a similar case in 2009 when the Montana Supreme Court ruled in Baxter v. Montana that: “… we find no indication in Montana law that physician aid in dying provided to terminally ill, mentally capable adult patients is against public policy.”

Six states have authorized medical aid in dying: Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont, California, and Colorado, as well as the District of Columbia.

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