Much of what I do as an elder law attorney is ensuring that my clients are able to control their lives until the end of their days and beyond. This includes financial considerations and the distribution of their belongings and possessions. But, perhaps most crucially is the way they want their health to be managed at their end of days including the way they want to die. It’s all about ensuring their dignity.
Given that, I was intrigued that California Governor Jerry Brown recently signed an Aid-in-Dying bill into law.
The law requires that two separate doctors determine that a patient has six months or less to live before prescribing the lethal medication. The patient must voluntarily submit two oral requests at least 15 days apart, as well as a written request to the attending physician. Further, they must be physically able to swallow the medication themselves and have the mental capacity to make medical decisions.
The reason this seems like a positive move to me is that it goes some way towards formalizing what happens at the deathbeds of many people in this country. We have all heard family stories of what happens when a loved one is being kept alive mostly by machines with no chance for recovery. With an implicit – but unstated – agreement between family and the doctor, medication dosages are increased slowly and mercifully until the patient slips into death.
This law would take deathbed decisions out of the hands of family members and put it straight in the hands of the person in that bed. If a person is slipping from life towards death, they should be able to orchestrate their end the way they wish, without putting friends and family through the anguish of doing it themselves.
The law wasn’t passed without impassioned discussion from both sides of the issue but in the end Brown spoke as he put his pen to it, saying that if his death were to be a painful one, he would want the law in place. He added that he couldn’t deny others that option as well.
When the law takes effect in 2016, California will be the fifth stage to permit a variation on physician-assisted suicide. Currently Montana, Washington, Oregon and Vermont have similar laws. New Mexico had a law in place which was repealed.
In the end however, like similar societal changes, it will roll slowly across the country. Given that it ensures death with dignity, I know some of my clients would want to have such a law in place. But for now, we will have to wait.
To read a story on California’s new law, click here.