111 Terminally Ill Californians Have Opted To End Their Own Lives Under New Law

The state's End of Life Option Act went into effect last year.

In California, 111 terminally ill people chose to exercise their right to end their own lives in the first six months after the state’s right-to-die law went into effect, according to a report released this week by the California Department of Public Health.

The End of Life Option Act, signed into law in 2015 and implemented last June, allows terminally ill patients who have been given a prognosis of six months or less to live can obtain a lethal dose of medication.

According to data collected by the state, 191 people were prescribed aid-in-dying medication from June 9 to Dec. 31, 2016. Of those individuals, 111 (58 percent) died after taking the prescribed medication. Of the remaining individuals, 21 died without taking the drugs. No outcomes were reported for the other 59 people. 

About 75 percent of the people who died after taking the medication were 60 to 89 years old. Nearly 90 percent of them were white, and 72 percent had attended at least some college. 

Those statistics are similar to data from Oregon, which implemented its right-to-die law in 1998 and served as the model for California’s legislation. 

“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,” said Matt Whitaker, the California director of Compassion & Choices, a leading right-to-die advocacy group. 

The law was inspired by Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer while living in California. Maynard became a national symbol of the right-to-die movement after she decided to move to Oregon to seek options under its right-to-die law. 

“I am dying, and I refuse to lose my dignity. I refuse to subject myself and my family to purposeless, prolonged pain and suffering at the hands of an incurable disease,” Maynard said in a video message to lawmakers prior to her death in 2014.

The legislation met some opposition from Catholic groups who objected to it on religious grounds. Others raised concern that the measure could be abused. For example, lethal drugs could be offered to low-income patients as an alternative to expensive treatment. The California data appear to dispel that fear: 96 percent of the people who ended their lives under the new law had health insurance

The law also has several built-in protections to guard against abuse. Two doctors must sign off on the patient’s prognosis, and the patient must make a written request and two oral requests for the medication at least 15 days apart. Patients must also be deemed capable of making decisions about their own health.