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374 Californians took their lives in 2017 under physician-assisted suicide law

374 Californians took their lives in 2017 under physician-assisted suicide law
Debbie Ziegler, mother of Brittany Maynard -- a teacher from California who had terminal cancer who moved to Oregon to take advantage of their aid-in-dying law -- speaks to the media after the passage of California's legislation. (Carl Costas / AP)

A total of 374 people in California took their lives in 2017 using lethal medications prescribed by their doctors under the state’s physician-assisted suicide law, according to state data released Friday.

The End of Life Option Act, which went into effect in June 2016, made the state the fifth to legalize physician-assisted suicide.

The new data comes amid an ongoing legal battle over the future of the law. A judge temporarily suspended the law after ruling it was unconstitutional last month, only to have another court reverse that decision last week.

In the first 18 months the law was in effect, 485 Californians used it to take their life, according to state data.

Patients can request a prescription for the lethal medicine, typically secobarbital, from their physician if they have six months or less to live. The law requires that patients make two verbal requests to physicians, at least 15 days apart.

In addition to the 485 patients who have died under the law, an additional 283 patients have received a prescription from their physician but have either not filled it or not ingested the medicines, according to state data. Many patients say that simply having the pills is a comfort.

Writing the lethal prescriptions is voluntary for doctors, and some medical facilities, including all Catholic and church-affiliated hospitals, have not allowed their physicians to prescribe such medicines.

In 2017, 241 doctors wrote a total of 577 prescriptions, according to state data.

The experience in California so far appears to be similar to that in Oregon, which became the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide nearly 20 years ago.

In California, an appeals court is expected to rule on the legality of the End of Life Option Act in the coming months. It’s possible that the court could rule the law is unconstitutional and invalidate it.

In both California and Oregon, most people who have taken advantage of the law were suffering from cancer and over 60 years old, according to state data.

Physician-assisted deaths made up 13 out of every 10,000 deaths in California in 2017, according to state data. That’s lower than the 2017 rate in Oregon, where lethal prescriptions accounted for 40 per 10,000 deaths.

Deaths by lethal prescription in 2017

California

  • 51% were female
  • The median age was 74
  • 89% were white
  • 68% had cancer

Oregon

  • 42% were female
  • The median age was 74
  • 94% were white
  • 77% had cancer

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