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On October 6, 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation allowing terminally ill patients to seek medical aid in ending their lives so long as they have been given six months or less to live by two physicians, provide a written request and two oral requests at least fifteen days apart, are deemed mentally capable of making decisions about their own health, and are California residents.

The law will take effect in 2016, 91 days after the special legislative session concludes.  At that time, California will become the fifth state to allow physician assisted suicides.  Oregon, Washington, Montana, and Vermont also permit the practice.  The California Act is modeled after the Oregon law that went to into effect in 1997, where, last year, 105 people took their lives with drugs prescribed for that purpose.  In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the Justice Department’s attempt to block Oregon’s then nine year old statute.  The practice was permitted in New Mexico until August when a state appellate court reversed a lower court ruling establishing physician assisted suicide as a fundamental right.  Advocates have appealed the case to the State’s Supreme Court and a hearing is set for later this month.

Questions have been raised whether hospitals will refuse to offer life-ending drugs to preserve their reputations and relationships with patients.  Under the California Act, hospitals and doctors have the option of not offering end of life drugs.  The law makes it a felony to pressure anyone into requesting or taking assisted suicide drugs.

At this time, the vast majority of States do not allow patients to end their lives, either on their own or through the aid of a physician.  While all States allow patients to withhold treatment, only the States identified above allow assisted suicide or death with dignity.  This is an emerging area of the law.

Hodges and Davis, P.C. - October 2015