Following months of emotionally-charged debate, Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday signed landmark legislation allowing terminally-ill patients to obtain lethal medication. When the measures goes into effect in 2016, California will become the fifth state to legalize physician-assisted suicide.

[For a comprehensive list of current state laws and a curated set of arguments for and against the practice,  check out ProCon.org.]

The “End of Life Option Act” requires two different doctors to first determine that a patient has six months or less to live before prescribing lethal drugs. Patients must be physically able to swallow the pill-form medication themselves and have the mental capacity to make medical decisions.

“In the end, I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death,” Brown, who struggled with the decision, wrote in his signing message. “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.”

His signature at least temporarily halts a hotly-contested, 10-month debate that drew emotional testimony from lawmakers and cancer patients as well as disability advocates and members of the religious community.

The long-standing issue over physician-assisted suicide in California was reignited late last year amidst widespread media coverage of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old terminally-ill California resident, moved to Oregon to end her life legally, allowed under that state’s Death With Dignity law.

Physician-assisted suicide is notably different from euthanasia. In the former, patients with a terminal diagnosis formally request a prescription from a doctor for a fatal dose of a drug (generally in pill form) which they can administer themselves privately when they wish, according to the end-of-life resource site Comfort Care Choices.

Euthanasia, on the other hand, involves a physician or other healthcare provider deliberately administering treatment — such as a lethal injection — to end a patient’s life, with or without the patient’s consent. Although not allowed anywhere in the U.S., the practice is legal in several northern European nations, including Belgium and the Netherlands.

Supporters of physician-assisted suicide argue that these laws allow terminally ill patients to avoid unbearable suffering and die on their own terms in a humane and dignified way. It also allows greater accountability and state oversight of the process, they contend, without taking away other end-of-life care options, giving patients more autonomy to make their own end-of-life decisions.

Those against the law include the Catholic Church and a number of other religious institutions who argue that life is a gift from God and should not be prematurely shortened under any circumstance. Other opponents fear that the law could result in caregivers pressuring patients to end their lives as a way of saving money or easing the burden of care.

There is also strong concern that because physician-assisted suicide is often cheaper than end-of-life care, it may influence decisions made by patients, doctors and insurance companies. And, some opponents argue, it can be very difficult for doctors to accurately predict how much time certain patients have left live and how much influence intensive care can have in prolonging their lives.

MAP: Physician-Assisted Suicide Laws by State 9 June,2016Matthew Green

  • Bradley Williams

    Your source has done you a disservice. The promoters of assisted suicide have worn
    out their thesaurus attempting to imply that it is legal in Montana. Assisted suicide is a homicide in Montana. Our
    MT Supreme Court ruled that if a doctor is charged with a homicide they might
    have a potential defense based on consent. The Court did not address civil
    liabilities. No one in Montana has immunity from civil or criminal prosecution.
    Does that sound legal to you? Oregon model bills have been rejected by our
    legislature in 2011, 2013 and 2015 because of gaping loopholes that allow
    exploitation of elders and people with disabilities of all ages. Passage would
    have established dangerous public policy.
    By
    Oregon and Washington law all family members are not required to be
    contacted. A single heir is allowed to initiate and execute the lethal
    process without a witness, thus eviscerating intended safe guards. Everyone
    involved in the lethal process gets immediate immunity. A witness is not
    required to confirm the dose was self-administered so if they struggled and
    changed their mind who would ever know?
    In
    addition these laws prohibit investigations or public inquiries leaving no
    recourse for surviving family members who were not contacted. Does that sound like good public policy to
    you? This is a very dangerous public policy that allows for the exploitation of
    elders and people with disabilities of all ages. However, it serves the
    health insurance corporations very well.

    Unfortunately all of these loopholes are embodied in California’s ABX2-15.

    Oregon and
    Washington should amend their initiative-sound-bite driven dangerous laws.

    Also note
    how the promoters of assisted suicide cling to their verbally engineered polls
    that claim a majority is in favor. I
    polled thousands of Montanans one-on-one as I served 60 days at fair booths
    across the state. Once folks knew about
    the loopholes in all of the Oregon model bills, 95% were not for them. So much for their verbally engineered polls.

    There were a
    few people (about 2%) that believed in the survival of the fittest who remained
    in favor of legalizing assisted suicide even after learning how these bills are
    written and can be administered to expand the scope of abuse. Their reasoning was that if one cannot
    control their family then their life should be cut short. 98% do not agree with that. Do you?

Author

Matthew Green

Matthew Green produces and edits The Lowdown, KQED’s multimedia news education blog, an online resource for educators and the general public. He previously taught journalism at Fremont High School in East Oakland, and has written for numerous local publications, including the Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle. Email: mgreen@kqed.org; Twitter: @MGreenKQED

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor