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California Becomes Fifth State to Give Terminally Ill Residents the 'Right to Die'

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As of Thursday, California joins Washington, Oregon, Vermont and Montana as the fifth state affording its terminally ill residents the “right to die.”

Through its “End of Life Option Act,” terminally ill people living in California can legally end their lives in their own homes. According to the act, “terminally ill” is defined as having six months to live or less.

This is not the same as physician-assisted suicide, in which a doctor gives life-ending drugs to a patient intravenously. Terminally ill patients who wish to end their life in California must be mentally competent and physically capable of taking the medication (i.e. swallowing pills). The law only applies to terminally ill people over the age of 18.

California’s law stresses the fact that those who receive a prescription are not obligated to take it, should they change their mind. Based on data collected by Oregon’s health administration, last year around 40 percent of those who received a life-ending prescription in Oregon did not use them.

To be prescribed the medication, two doctors must sign off on a patient’s life expectancy, place of residence and mental competence. According to the nonprofit organization Death With Dignity, the process can be lengthy. It begins with an oral request to a doctor who is then required to inform a patient of all alternatives. The patient will also be asked to notify their next-of-kin that they are requesting to end their life. The doctor, and a second physician, must then evaluate the patient’s health and determine competency. If they question mental health, the patient will need a psychiatric evaluation as well. The patient must then wait 15 days before making a second oral request, followed by a written request using the state’s appropriate forms. The patient may withdraw requests, both written and oral, at any time. Once these steps are completed, the physician may write a prescription, which can be filled 48 hours later. The patient is not obligated to fill or take the prescription. Should the patient decide to legally end their life in California, they must fill out California’s “Final Attestation Form” 48 hours before taking the medication.

“Right to die” laws do not require doctors to prescribe life-ending medications. While Death With Dignity found approximately 70 percent of Americans support physician-prescribed life-ending medications, the American Medical Association – the largest organization for doctors – is opposed to offering drugs, or even information, that would help patients end their lives.

A policy authored by the AMA states:

It is understandable, though tragic, that some patients in extreme duress – such as those suffering from a terminal, painful, debilitating illness – may come to decide that death is preferable to life. However, allowing physicians to participate in assisted suicide would cause more harm than good. Physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer, would be difficult or impossible to control, and would pose serious societal risks.

Physicians largely opposing the law could present issues for those who wish to legally end their lives. Currently, there are no lists designed to help patients find physicians who support the law or are willing to prescribe life-ending medications.

If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

The Crisis Text Line is looking for volunteers! If you’re interesting in becoming a Crisis Counselor, you can learn more information here.

Originally published: June 9, 2016
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