Prescription Medicine Bottle with PillsOn June 9, 2016 California became the fifth state to permit its terminally ill residents to obtain a prescription for a lethal dose of medication to end their life. This new law is called the End of Life Option Act. Now, with their physicians’ help, patients in California can minimize their suffering at the end of life by choosing their time of death.

Since 2014, aid-in-dying bills have been introduced in at least 26 states and Washington, D.C. Oregon was the first state to legalize aid in dying in 1997. Since then, studies have found no evidence of coercion or other abuses. About a third of Oregon patients who receive medication to end their lives never actually use it. Some draw reassurance simply from knowing they will be able to end their lives if they wish.

The experiences of Oregon, Vermont and Washington State show that this end of life option, with appropriate safeguards, offers the terminally ill a measure of dignity and control.

To request a prescription for life-ending medication in California, a patient must be:

At least 18 years old, a California resident, mentally capable of making and communicating health care decisions, and diagnosed with a terminal disease that will result in death within six months.

A patient who meets the requirements above can be prescribed aid-in-dying medication only if:

  • He or she makes two verbal requests to their doctor, at least 15 days apart.
  • He or she gives a written request to the doctor, signed in front of two qualified, adult witnesses. (The law sets out the specific form that the patient must use.)
  • The prescribing doctor and one other doctor confirm the patient’s diagnosis and prognosis.
  • The prescribing doctor and one other doctor determine that the patient is capable of making medical decisions.
  • The patient has a psychological examination, if either doctor feels the patient’s judgment is impaired.

Taking this option one step further, some European countries, like Switzerland and Belgium, allow aid in dying for people who are not terminally ill but endure painful emotional and psychological distress.

While it’s important to provide a humane option to the dying, it’s also essential that lawmakers focus on the need to provide broader access to palliative and hospice care so terminal patients do not choose death because pain relief is unaffordable or inaccessible.

You can read the full text of California’s End of Life Option Act on California’s Legislative Information website.