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Disability groups say California's assisted suicide law discriminates against them

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Disability groups are challenging a California law that allows terminally ill people to get drugs to end their lives. The groups say that people living with disabilities are at greater risk of being coerced into seeking those medications for assisted suicide. NPR's Joseph Shapiro has this report.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: People with disabilities often have a complicated relationship with the medical system. Many doctors make their lives better, even save their lives. But sometimes doctors deny care or even question if their lives are worth living. The pandemic heightened the fears of disabled people, people like Ingrid Tischer.

INGRID TISCHER: When I was in the hospital, I was afraid for the first time in my life in a hospital.

SHAPIRO: Tischer has a form of muscular dystrophy. She's in her 50s now. She's spent a lifetime around doctors, but something this time, in 2021 in the middle of the pandemic when she had pneumonia, threw her for a loop.

TISCHER: For me, it was a very solid gut punch.

SHAPIRO: At the hospital, a doctor was dismissive. She asked for therapy to regain her strength. In the past, she got care that brought her back from illnesses. This time the doctor said no.

TISCHER: He kind of looked at me and said, well, I mean, look at you. There's nothing we can really do for you. And you've known this is coming for a long time, so why are you surprised?

SHAPIRO: Tischer says she was devastated, ready to go home and die. If a doctor had told her she should apply for California's assisted suicide law, she says, she might well have said yes. To be clear, no doctor ever suggested that. She never got the pills needed to die. Instead, she got another doctor who gave her a different diagnosis. She got out of the hospital, she recovered, and today she's working again and doing fine. Now, Tischer is one of the named plaintiffs on a California lawsuit filed this week that challenges the legality of the state's 7-year-old End of Life Option Act.

MICHAEL BIEN: The law discriminates against people in a very dangerous way and steers and normalizes suicide for a particularly vulnerable part of the population.

SHAPIRO: That's Michael Bien, the lawyer who was bringing the lawsuit on behalf of four disability groups. To many disabled people, the danger of subtle medical discrimination is real. In the pandemic, faced with possible shortages of ventilators and other treatments, several states told doctors and hospitals it was OK to deny care to disabled and elderly people. The federal government stepped in and stopped it. People who work with California's assisted suicide law say there's not that kind of discrimination in its end of life law. Nathan Fairman is the psychiatrist and palliative care doctor who oversees cases at UC Davis Health in Sacramento.

NATHAN FAIRMAN: Having a disability would not qualify an individual for aid in dying. Someone who's disabled and has end-stage cancer could potentially qualify, and they would have to step through all of the safeguards that are set out in the law.

SHAPIRO: Fairman says there are plenty of those safeguards to prevent abuse. Two doctors need to confirm that someone is terminally ill and mentally competent to choose to die. A spokesperson for the California Department of Public Health said it does not comment on litigation.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joseph Shapiro is a NPR News Investigations correspondent.