Physician-assisted death becomes legal in California

Liz Seegert

About Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic editor on aging. Her work has appeared in NextAvenue.com, Journal of Active Aging, Cancer Today, Kaiser Health News, the Connecticut Health I-Team and other outlets. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement at George Washington University and co-produces the HealthCetera podcast.

Gov. Jerry Brown on Oct. 5 signed California’s controversial End of Life Option Act, which permits physician-aided death for terminally ill patients. California becomes the fifth state in the nation to allow doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medication to certain patients seeking to end their lives.

The law, modeled after Oregon’s law, requires two doctors to agree that the person has six months or less to live and is mentally competent.

Until Brown, a former Jesuit seminarian, announced he had signed the bill it was unclear where the governor stood on the issue. He released a brief statement outlining his moral dilemma, saying, “I do not know what I would do if I were dying and 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.”

The bill’s signing comes nearly one year after death of Brittany Maynard, a California woman who became a symbol for the right-to-die movement after being diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer. Maynard moved from California to Oregon to take advantage of that state’s Death with Dignity Act, which was approved by voters in 1994. She and her family strongly advocated for passage of an end-of-life option in California and other states.

“This is the biggest victory for the death-with-dignity movement since Oregon passed the nation’s first law two decades ago,” said Compassion & Choices President Barbara Coombs Lee, a lawyer and former nurse and physician assistant who coauthored that state’s act.

According to Reuters, the California bill was strongly opposed by some religious groups and disability rights advocates, who worry that unscrupulous caregivers or relatives might pressure some patients into committing suicide. Some advocates for the elderly, who frequently suffer from chronic, debilitating illnesses, are also concerned about the potential for pressure to be placed on the elderly by relatives because of financial or emotional burden.

A Gallup survey, taken in May 2015, found that nearly 7 in 10 Americans (68 percent) believe doctors should be legally allowed to assist terminally ill patients in committing suicide, up 10 percentage points from last year. Much of the increased support comes from the 18-to-34-year-old age group; the survey found that young adults are now significantly more likely than older U.S. adults to support doctor-assisted suicide. A 2013 Pew Research study found that more than 6 in 10 (62 percent) of people believed that terminally ill patients have a “moral right” to end their own life if they are suffering great pain and have no hope of improvement. Support for for physician-assisted suicide has steadily increased since 2000.

Oregon, Vermont, Montana, and Washington also allow for physician-assisted suicide under parameters similar to the California law.

A New Mexico appellate court recently overturned a 2014 district court ruling that aid in dying is a fundamental right under the state’s constitution., That case is headed to the New Mexico Supreme Court.

Compassion & Choices, the right-to-die advocacy group led by Lee, has called on other states to follow California’s lead in passing legislation that will allow terminally ill patients to avoid what they consider to be needless suffering at the end of their lives. Thirty eight states have specific laws prohibiting physician-assisted death; three states and the District of Columbia prohibit it by common law, and four other states have taken no stance either way.

Where does your state stand on this issue? Check out this map for a quick reference.

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