Physician-assisted suicide is legal in seven US states and the District of Columbia. It is an option given to individuals by law in the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. It is an option given to individuals in Montana via court decision. Individuals must have a terminal illness as well as a prognosis of six months or less to live. Physicians cannot be prosecuted for prescribing medications to hasten death.
Mandated by Court Ruling:
California (litigation still active as of 8/18)
The specific method in each state varies, but mainly involves a prescription from a licensed physician approved by the state in which the patient is a resident.
Physician-assisted suicide differs from euthanasia, which is defined as the act of assisting people with their death in order to end their suffering, but without the backing of a controlling legal authority.
In Oregon, “the physician must be a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathy (D.O.) licensed to practice medicine by the Board of Medical Examiners for the State of Oregon. The physician must also be willing to participate in the Act.”
In Vermont, “only a doctor of medicine or osteopathy licensed to practice medicine in Washington may write this prescription…A physician, nurse, pharmacist, or other person shall not be under any duty, by law or contract, to participate in the provision of a lethal dose of medication to a patient.”
In Washington, “only a doctor of medicine or osteopathy licensed to practice medicine in Washington may write this prescription…participation is entirely voluntary. Health care providers are not required to provide prescriptions or medications to qualified patients.”
In Colorado, the law “allows an eligible terminally ill individual with a prognosis of six months or less to live to request and self-administer medical aid-in-dying medication in order to voluntarily end his or her life; Authorizes a physician to prescribe medical aid-in-dying medication to a terminally ill individual under certain conditions; and Creates criminal penalties for tampering with a person’s request for medical aid-in-dying medication or knowingly coercing a person with a terminal illness to request the medication.”
In the District of Columbia, to obtain the medication, “a patient shall make 2 oral requests, separated by at least 15 days, to an attending physician. Submit a written request, signed and dated by the patient, to the attending physician before the patient makes his or her 2nd oral request and at least 48 hours before a covered medication may be prescribed or dispensed.”
In Hawaii, the patient must make two oral requests, separated by at least 20 days, and must be evaluated by two health care providers and a counselor, and must undergo a waiting period in between the requests and receipt of the prescription.
The process of reporting applications and deaths varies by state. Only those states where physician-assisted suicide is mandated by law have a reporting process.
Oregon – Has had a physician-assisted suicide law on the books since 1997. Since its enactment, there has been a steady increase in both prescription recipients and the number of deaths. According to the 2017 Data Summary, as of January 19, 2018, prescriptions have been written for 1,967 people, and 1,275 patients have died from ingesting the drugs that were legally prescribed to them under the law.
Washington – According to the 2017 annual report, since 2009 prescriptions have been written for 1,401 people, and there have been 1,364 reported deaths.
Colorado – The state Department of Public Health and Environment reported that in 2017, 69 prescriptions for aid-in-dying medication were written by physicians for patients, and in 50 of those, the medication was dispensed by a pharmacy.
June 1997 – The US Supreme Court rules that state laws banning physician-assisted suicide do not violate the Constitution in the case Washington v. Glucksberg. The court left the matter of the constitutionality of a right to a physician’s aid in dying to the states.
October 27, 1997 – Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act becomes law. Passed in a 1994 election with 51% of voters in favor, the law was delayed initially because US District Judge Michael Hogan issued an injunction and then ruled it unconstitutional. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the ruling and the injunction was lifted when the US Supreme Court referred the matter back to the state in 1997.
November 1998 – American pathologist and assisted suicide advocate Jack Kevorkian, known as “Dr. Death,” videotapes the death of Thomas Youk, submits it to CBS’s 60 Minutes and it is broadcast on television. The airing prompts murder charges against Kevorkian, rather than assisted suicide charges, because Kevorkian injected the drug into Youk, who had Lou Gehrig’s disease.
March 26, 1999 – Kevorkian is convicted of second degree murder and delivery of a controlled substance. He serves eight years of a 10 to 25 year sentence.
November 4, 2008 – Washington’s initiative, the Death with Dignity Act, is passed with 57.91% of voters in favor.
March 5, 2009 – The Washington Death with Dignity Act goes into effect.
December 31, 2009 – A Montana Supreme Court ruling in the case Baxter v. Montana asserts that the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act protects a physician who prescribes aid from liability.
November 2012 – In Massachusetts, a death with dignity initiative appears on the November 2012 ballot. It is defeated by a slim margin with 51% voting against it.
May 20, 2013 – Vermont signs the Patient Choice and Control at End of Life Act into law.
January 13, 2014 – New Mexico Second Judicial District Judge Nan Nash rules in favor of an individual’s right to die in the case Morris v. Brandenberg. In appeal by the Office of the New Mexico Attorney General, the case is assigned to the New Mexico Court of Appeals/Supreme Court. The ruling remains in effect but only for Bernalillo County, according to the attorney general’s office.
November 1, 2014 – Brittany Maynard, a 29 year-old with terminal brain cancer, ends her life under Oregon’s “Death with Dignity Act.” She had moved to Oregon following her January 1, 2014, prognosis in order to take advantage of the Death with Dignity law. There is no such law in her native California. She garnered a large following advocating for physician-assisted suicide laws via social media.
October 5, 2015 – California Governor Jerry Brown signs into law the End of Life Option Act, which legalizes physician-assisted suicide for Californians with terminal illnesses. In a letter to members of the California State Assembly, Brown wrote that he thought about his own death while considering whether to sign the bill. “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.”
March 10, 2016 – The California legislature adjourns a special session, paving the way for the End of Life Option Act to take effect on June 9.
November 8, 2016 – Colorado voters approve Proposition 106, which includes the Colorado End of Life Options Act. It takes effect on December 16, 2016.
December 19, 2016 – The District of Columbia signs the Death with Dignity Act into law. The Act goes into effect February 18, 2017.
April 5, 2018 – Hawaii’s “Our Care, Our Choice Act” is signed into law. The Act goes into effect January 1, 2019.
May 15, 2018 – California’s Riverside County Superior Court Judge Daniel Ottolia overturns the 2016 state law that allows doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill adult patients. In his tentative oral ruling, he says it is unconstitutional because the Legislature passed it during a special session convened by Gov. Jerry Brown to address health care-related issues. The state attorney general has five days to file an emergency writ, a type of appeal, to seek a stay and keep the law in place.
May 24, 2018 – Judge Ottolia issues his judgment in favor of the plaintiffs and ends physician-assisted suicide in the state of California. A motion to vacate the judgment is rejected.
June 15, 2018 – The judgment ending physician-assisted suicide is stayed in appeals court, making it legal in California again, pending further litigation.