Life Matters Media
Quality of life at the end of life

More Than 100 Took Their Lives Under California’s ‘Death With Dignity’ Law

BY DANIEL GAITAN | daniel@lifemattersmedia.org

Brittany Maynard holds life-ending drugs in a Compassion & Choices ad.

In the first six months since California’s new “Death with Dignity” law took effect, 111 terminally ill people took their lives with doctor-prescribed drugs, according to a state health department report.

The report, released this summer, offers an early glimpse of the Californians who took advantage of the controversial law.

California passed the End of Life Option Act last spring, despite strong opposition from social conservatives and some physicians organizations.

California, the nation’s most populous state, is the fifth state in the country to enact such legislation. The law is modeled on Oregon’s 1997 law.

Since taking effect on Dec. 31, 250 people applied for the program. Under the law, terminally ill patients must submit two oral requests (a minimum of 15 days apart) and one written request to his or her attending physician. The written request must also be signed in front of two witnesses. They must attest that the patient is of sound mind and not being coerced.

The patient must also self-administer the drugs.

Of the 250 applicants, 191 (76 percent) received prescriptions written by more than 170 physicians. According to state data, 111 people took them and died, and 21 died of natural causes before taking them.

Most of the people who took their lives were white, college-educated seniors who were receiving some level of comfort care. Just over half were women.

Sixty-five people were facing cancers, while 20 had neuromuscular disorders such as ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The rest had other conditions.

The rate for those who died from life-ending drugs was 6.06 per 10,000 total deaths based on 183,265 deaths in California from June 9 to Dec. 31, 2016.

The Maynard effect

The high-profile death of Brittany Maynard propelled the issue into a national debate.

Proponents of the practice used the high-profile death of 29-year-old cancer patient Brittany Maynard to generate support in the nation’s most populous state.

In 2014, Maynard was diagnosed with an aggressive glioblastoma and was given six months to live. Maynard and her husband, Dan Diaz, moved from California to Oregon to obtain doctor-prescribed barbiturates.

Working with the right-to-die advocacy group Compassion & Choices, Maynard used her story to raise awareness about the practice and inspire other terminally ill Americans to end their lives on similar terms.

Many physicians, bioethicists and religious leaders caution that physician-assisted suicide is incompatible with physicians’ primary role as healer and would foster resentment towards sick people hoping to live as long as possible.

The American Medical Association, the nation’s largest physicians organization, strongly opposes the practice.