Calif.’s right-to-die law sees 111 take lives in first 6 months
One hundred eleven people in California took their lives in the first six months of the state’s new right-to-die law, which allows terminally ill adults to request life ending drugs from their doctors, according to a state health department report released last week. The report offers the first snapshot of Californians who sought to end their lives under the legislation.
California enacted the End of Life Option Act on June 9 of last year amid heated debate over the ethics of permitting physicians to give lethal medications to patients suffering from terminal diseases. It is the fifth state in the country to enact right-to-die legislation, which was first adopted by Oregon in 1997.
Between the day California’s law took effect and Dec. 31, 2016, more than 250 people started what the law calls the “end-of-life option process,” making two verbal requests for aid-in-dying drugs, according to the report by the California Department of Public Health. Of those people, 191 received prescriptions written by 173 different physicians.
Health officials said 111 people ingested the drugs, killing themselves. Another 21 died of natural causes before taking the medication. It’s not clear what happened to the remaining 59 people who received prescriptions, the report said.
Those who ingested aid-indying drugs were mostly white, college-educated seniors who were receiving hospice or palliative care, according to the report. A little more than half were women.
Sixty-five people were suffering from malignant cancers, while 20 had neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Smaller numbers had heart or lung diseases, or other unspecified maladies.
There were six Asians, three blacks and three Hispanics, and the remaining 102 patients were white. Nearly all of them had insurance, most through Medicare or California’s Medi-Cal program. The median age was 73. Nearly three-quarters of patients had received at least some college education, according to the report.
The report’s findings mirror some statistics from Oregon, where the majority of patients last year were older than 65 and had terminal cancer.
Compassion and Choices, a leading right-to-die advocacy group, said California’s findings were good news for the law’s supporters.
“The state’s data show that even during the early months of the law’s implementation, the law was working well and terminally ill Californians were able to take comfort in knowing that they had this option to peacefully end intolerable suffering,” Matt Whitaker, the group’s California director, said in a statement Tuesday.
Critics of the law argue it is unethical for physicians to hasten death in anyone, and they warn that it is virtually impossible to tell if drugs were prescribed to a depressed or unwilling patient. The Life Legal Defense Foundation, American Academy of Medical Ethics and a group of doctors have sued in federal court to overturn the law, arguing it violates Californians’ civil rights by stripping terminally ill patients of certain legal protections and treating them differently from other patients.
John Minor, a retired psychologist from Manhattan Beach, Calif., was among those who ended their lives under the new law. He was an avid cyclist, runner and hiker until he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease, in his late 70s, as NPR reported last month.
As Minor’s body deteriorated to the point where he struggled to eat or speak, he asked for aid-indying drugs. But his doctors refused.
“I started cold-calling — like, just different hospitals and different departments within different hospitals,” Jackie Minor, his daughter, told NPR.
Finally, the family found him a health plan that would write him a prescription. Last September, at the age of 80, he drank a cup of apple juice mixed with a fatal dose of the pills and died quietly, surrounded by his relatives.
“John did what was right for him,” his wife, Sherry Minor, told the Los Angeles Times. “He died peacefully, rather than in agony, and he was in control. He didn’t feel afraid or helpless.”