In 1997, Oregon enacted the Death with Dignity Act, becoming the first US state to allow physicians to provide life-ending medications to qualifying patients. Since then, more than 1,500 prescriptions have been administered.
Effective June 9th, 2016, California will be the fifth US state to allow terminally ill patients to request life-ending medication from their physicians, along with Vermont, Oregon, Washington, and Montana.
Statewide, some terminally ill patients are relieved by the news.
Elizabeth Wallner is a single mother with stage 4 colon cancer that, in her case, has spread to her lungs and liver. She said, “It gives me a great peace of mind to know that I will not be forced to die slowly and painfully … that the agonizingly traumatic image of me suffering will not be my family’s last memory of me.”
However, for patients like Elizabeth, there may be some challenges up ahead. Patients and their families must find physicians, hospice workers, and other providers who will administer the medication, since they are not necessarily required to by law. Catholic-affiliated institutions (which make up around thirteen percent of California’s hospitals) are exempt, and will not allow their staff to be a part of The End of Life Option Act. However, Kaiser Permanente and Sutter Health revealed that they and their staff will participate, though their individual providers are not required to do so.
As the law is written now, two doctors must agree that the patient has six months or less to live. The patient must confirm the decision in writing, as well.
Despite the many advocates for The End of Life Option Act, there are still plenty of opposers. Californians Against Assisted Suicide wrote on March 10th: “Californians Against Assisted Suicide remains strongly critical of this new law, and its lack of medical oversight and actual patient safeguards. We will continue working with our partners including doctors, patients and disability rights organizations to educate those impacted and vulnerable, as well as working to limit the law’s harms and prevent any expansion.”
For California families who are supporting a loved one through terminal, incurable illness, The End of Life Option Act may provide some relief and closure–that is, if families are easily able to find a willing provider.
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(Sources: NPR, Modern Healthcare, CBN News, CAAS, Oregon Public Health Division)