Calif.’s right-to-die law sees 111 take lives in first 6 months

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY DEREK HAWKINS derek.hawkins@wash­post.com More at wash­ing­ton­post.com/ news/morn­ing-mix

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.”

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