California’s New Right-to-Die Law

"What would you do if you had six months left to live?" This is an often-posed hypothetical question. The answers typically include family, travel, ticking those boxes on your bucket list...but what if it wasn't a hypothetical? What if cancer was going to become progressively aggressive over the next six months, eventually ending your life? Would you want the option to slip peacefully into sleep two minutes after taking a pill, passing away after twenty minutes?

Last week, Governor Jerry Brown signed SB-128 The End-of-Life Option Act legislation, also known as the "right-to-die" law, modeled after the precedent-setting Oregon legislation passed in 1997. This legislation affords terminally ill individuals the right to choose to end their life through doctor-prescribed drugs. California follows Oregon, Washington, Vermont and Montana, as the fifth state to pass this type of legislature. A bill proposed earlier in the year did not pass, and this one was brought up in the special session on health care. The law will actually go into effect in January, or later in 2016, ninety days after the adjournment of Legislature's session.

The issue of assisted death is not to be confused with euthanasia, which involves the doctor or medical personnel administering the drug; in assisted death, the doctor prescribes the drug, but the patient self-administers the lethal dose. After a few years in the background, assisted death was brought back to the public's attention with the media coverage of Brittany Maynard's story. The 29-year-old University of California, Irvine graduate was diagnosed with brain cancer and uprooted her life in Northern California to move with her husband and parents to Oregon. Following Brittany's death, her mother has been a presence at the dialogue surrounding this issue. She advocated for the right to choose to self-administer a lethal dose of prescribed medicine, from the comfort of their own home and hometown.

The particulars of the law address many details:

  • The patient must be over 18 years old, and two doctors must confirm the six-month prognosis.
  • The patient must be in a stable mental state in which they may make informed medical decisions. Throughout the process, they submit multiple written statements of their desire to take the end-of-life option, with two witnesses present, one of which may not be family.
  • They also must make two oral requests, two days apart from one another.
  • Doctors and hospitals are not required to participate, nor are they penalized if they do.

Opponents of the law raise concerns especially in response to Governor Brown's comment that accompanied his signature: "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." Their response refers us to those who don't have access to affordable health care, where this might be seen as the only option, less expensive than treatments seeking to extend or sustain life. Opponents also fear the lack of control within insurance companies; if an assisted death fee is three hundred dollars and covered, will the thousands of dollars for chemotherapy or radiation be left uncovered for those who want to fight their disease?

Proponents circle back to the human element: the choice to have a say in death, to "die with dignity", to ease or even erase suffering. Dozens of other states are currently entertaining the pros and cons as they debate assisted death legislature similar to California's recent bill.

Do you feel that people should have the legal right to take their own life when faced with a terminal illness? Have you been charged with helping someone with assisted suicide? The Law Offices of Glew & Kim offer a free legal review of your case. Call 866-416-2161 to find out how.

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