California Euthanasia Laws: Assisted Suicide and Patient's Rights

Two elderly hands holding onto a younger hand
••• Images_by_Lisa/iStock/GettyImages

In 2016, California became the seventh state in the country to allow physician-assisted death, which many refer to as assisted suicide or euthanasia. Since then, the law has gone through several legal challenges. Anyone affected by physician-assisted death in California should understand the law, who qualifies and how to apply for this patient right.

Courts and California Euthanasia Laws

In 2015, the state legislature passed, and the governor signed, the California End of Life Option Act into law. The California euthanasia law took effect in 2016 and immediately faced challenges in the courts. The lawsuits briefly stopped euthanasia in California in 2018.

However, the California End of Life Option Act became effective once again less than a month later. The case went to the California Supreme Court, which ruled that the law would stay in effect. As of 2019, Californians continue to have the right to die with the assistance of a physician.

What Do California Euthanasia Laws Allow?

Euthanasia is a general term that refers to purposefully choosing to die in the face of a terminal illness. When the California euthanasia law was passed, it did not legalize all types of euthanasia. Instead, it specifically allows only that doctors may prescribe qualifying patients with legal doses of medications that the patients administer themselves.

This is different from so-called mercy killings in which someone ends another person's life for them in order to end suffering. While doctors can prescribe the lethal medication in California, nobody but the patient can administer it, even loved ones.

As is the case in most states, California also allows a patient to be withdrawn from life-supporting measures. This is different from physician-assisted death because these patients could not survive without medical intervention.

Who Is Eligible for Euthanasia?

Patients must meet several criteria in order to qualify for physician-assisted death. First, only adults can qualify under the California euthanasia law. These individuals must have documented diagnoses of terminal illnesses. Two doctors must confirm that the patient should expect to live six months or fewer.

Additionally, patients must demonstrate that they are of sound mind and have adequate decision-making capabilities before the doctor can write the prescription. Finally, patients must administer the lethal dose of medication themselves. Patients can take it orally or through a feeding tube, so long as they administer it on their own.

Steps for Physician-Assisted Death

Patients who meet the criteria for California euthanasia laws or who believe they may meet them soon should first speak with their physician. Anyone who wants to take advantage of this law will need a doctor that supports this decision. Patients have the right to change physicians if they feel another doctor has their best interests in mind.

Even when a doctor agrees to help a patient in this matter, patients must take several steps before the physician can write the prescription. A mental health professional must evaluate the patient to be sure he is of sound mind to make such a decision, and another doctor must sign off on the procedure.

Finally, the patient must be able to prove California residency. Patients can have a lease or a mortgage in California, for example. They may also prove residency with a photo ID from the state. Once everything has been signed off, the doctor can write the prescription and give the patient the lethal dose of medication. At that point, patients can administer the medication when they so choose.

Related Articles