Should Terminally Ill Patients have the Right to Decide When They Die?

In June 2016, California joined three other states – Washington, Vermont, and Oregon – in enacting legislation that legalizes physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients. Conversation surrounding such end-of-life decision-making sparked in 2014, when Brittany Maynard, a California schoolteacher diagnosed with brain cancer, decided to move to Oregon to die on her own terms.

The new California legislation allows a physician to prescribe lethal doses of medication only when requested by a terminally ill patient who is likely to have less than 6 months left to live. However, unlike other states that have similar laws, California is allowing physicians to demand that requests be made in writing.  Moreover, physicians are not required to prescribe the medication, nor are they required to refer the patients to another physician willing to do so. Catholic hospitals and other religious health groups have already expressed their unwillingness to participate, stating that “[w]e are crossing a line — from being a society that cares for those who are aging and sick to a society that kills those whose suffering we can no longer tolerate.” Some physicians say that they will require patients to go through rigorous psychological evaluations before prescribing the medication. Yet, the majority of patients with incurable diseases support the legislation, explaining that it will allow them not to be a burden to their families as their diseases progress.

While the enactment of the legislation has certainly not ended the debate over end-of-life decision-making in California, health care systems in the state are drafting new policies to help physicians and patients adjust to the new option for end-of-life care.



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