A California law permitting physicians to prescribe life-ending drugs to terminally ill patients has been overturned by a judge who says it was passed unconstitutionally.

Judge Daniel Ottolia of the Riverside County Superior Court did not challenge the legality of the nearly 3-year-old law but said California lawmakers should not have passed it during a special session on health care funding.

However, the judge is holding his judgment for five days to give the state time to file an emergency appeal. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who says he strongly disagrees with the ruling, says he plans to do so.

California is one of seven states, along with the District of Columbia, that has legal protections for assisted suicide. They account for about one-fifth of the U.S. population.

Stephen G. Larson, who was the lead counsel for a group of doctors who sued in 2016 to stop the law, tells The Sacramento Bee, "We're very satisfied with the court's decision today."

"The act itself was rushed through the special session of the Legislature, and it does not have any of the safeguards one would expect to see in a law like this," Larson says.

Opponents have argued that the law could lead to coercion and abuse of terminally ill patients.

"You have people at likely the most vulnerable time of their lives," says Alexandra Snyder, executive director of the Life Legal Defense Foundation, one of the plaintiffs in the case.

Those people are "potentially facing large medical expenses and that puts them in a position of being vulnerable to pressure not just from families but their own pressure that maybe this is a cheaper, less burdensome way to go," Snyder tells Laura Klivans of member station KQED.

The Bee reports:

"Signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2015, the assisted death law allows doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to patients with six months or less to live. Hundreds of Californians have already taken advantage of that option, including 111 individuals who died from taking the drugs in the first seven months of their availability.

"Proponents say it provides dignity to terminally ill patients by affording them more control over the end of their lives."

Compassion & Choices, an advocacy group for assisted suicide, says that in the first year of the law, 504 terminally ill adults in California "received prescriptions for medical aid in dying."

California Senate Majority Leader Bill Monning, a co-author of the law, says it would empower patients and includes a rigorous screening process to qualify.

Monning tells KQED's Klivans that the judge's rationale for the decision "seems a very desperate move."

"It was [Governor Jerry] Brown who signed the law. He could have vetoed the bill or refused to sign it," Monning says, according to KQED.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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