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California Legalizes Physician-Assisted Suicide

With the stroke of a pen yesterday, California became the fifth and largest state to allow physician-assisted suicide when Gov. Jerry Brown signed the End of Life Option Act. The Act allows doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medicine to mentally competent adults suffering from a terminal illness.

The bill had divided medical, ethical, and religious groups. Advocates argued that physician-assisted suicide allows death with dignity for terminally ill patients who could otherwise suffer excruciating ends. Others objected to doctors taking patient lives under any circumstances.

The End of Life Option Act

Under the Act, physicians will now be allowed to prescribe lethal doses to aid patients in ending their lives, without violating the state's homicide, malpractice, or other laws. To qualify for physician-assisted suicide, a patient must be:

  1. A California resident, who is an adult and competent to make medical decisions
  2. Diagnosed with a terminal disease
  3. From which they are expected to die within six months

Further, those seeking assisted suicide must make two oral requests, directly to their doctor and more than 15 days apart, as well as a written request. Doctors will be required to counsel requesting patients on feasible alternatives, such as comfort and hospice care.

It will now take several months for the state to fully legalize physician-assisted suicide. The law will only go into effect 90 days after the state Legislature adjourns its special session on healthcare, the Los Angeles Times reports. That session could last all the way through November of next year.

A Controversial Decision

In signing the bill, Governor Brown included a deeply personal signing statement. A former Jesuit seminarian, Brown consulted with Catholic bishops and other leaders when making his decision. But, despite his religious background, Brown signed the law, saying:

I do not know what I would do if 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. And I won't deny that right to others.

The Catholic Church is strongly opposed to the law and may sue to prevent its enactment. Some worried that terminally-ill patients may feel pressured into ending their life, to avoid "burdening" others with expensive and emotionally-tolling medical treatments. Tim Rosales, spokesman for Californians Against Assisted Suicide, argued that it is those with the least access to healthcare who are "potentially hurt by giving doctors the power to prescribe lethal overdoes to patients."

Others argued that the bill was necessary to help preserve ill individuals' dignity and self-determination. Stories such as that of Brittany Maynard helped sway public opinion and influenced Governor Brown's eventual decision. Maynard, a 29-year old from Anaheim, suffered from a debilitating, terminal brain cancer. The disease was expected to result in a slow and painful decline. Maynard shared her story online and in the press, becoming an advocate for the right to die before ending her life in Oregon last year.

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