California Gov. Jerry Brown signed landmark legislation last October that would allow terminally ill people to request life-ending medication from their physicians. The law went into effect on June 9, 2016. It is the fifth state in the U.S. to permit this option at the end of life. It joins Vermont, Oregon, Washington and Montana.
Before prescribing the drugs, the law requires two doctors to agree that a patient has six months or less to live. Patients must be mentally competent and able to swallow the medication themselves, affirming in writing 48 hours before taking the medication that they will do so.
The terms “physician-assisted suicide” and “euthanasia” and “physician-assisted suicide” are often confusing to people. Euthanasia means intentionally ending a patient’s life through the use of lethal injection that is carried out by a physician. The federal government of the U.S. prohibits euthanasia in all 50 states, but it is legal in the countries of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Physician-assisted suicide means that a medical doctor provides the patient with lethal medications to end their own life. As mentioned above, it is legal in five states (Montana’s law requires court ruling). The patient must be able to take the medication by themselves. Dr. Jack Kevorkian (“Dr. Death”) was famous for helping over 100 patients die by physician-assisted suicide. He passionately believed that patients going through intolerable suffering had the right to make that choice for themselves.
While there is still controversy surrounding physician-assisted suicide, many patients with advanced cancer welcome the option and many other states in the U.S. continue to fight for it. Many states are actively seeking to pass this law while many others have not yet made it a part of their legislative agenda.
In our Palliative Sedation in-service, physician-assisted suicide is briefly discussed and defined in the module introduction.