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April 2016

The Challenge of New Legislation on Physician-Assisted Death

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of Psychiatry, Oregon Health & Science University & VA Portland Health Care System, Portland
  • 2Department of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle

Copyright 2016 American Medical Association. All Rights Reserved. Applicable FARS/DFARS Restrictions Apply to Government Use.

JAMA Intern Med. 2016;176(4):427-428. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.0047

By the end of 2016, more than 80 million people in the United States and Canada will live in a jurisdiction allowing physician-assisted death. As such, this practice can no longer be considered a quirky experiment in a few states. The North American experience with physician-assisted death began in 1994, when voters in Oregon approved a ballot measure, the Death With Dignity Act, allowing a physician to prescribe a lethal dose of a medication that a patient voluntarily self-administers. Oregon stood alone for 14 years until Washington (2008), Vermont (2013), and now California (2015) approved similar laws. As of January 2016, the effective date of the California law, known as the End of Life Option Act, is uncertain. These laws are in general very similar, with safeguards that include requirements for a waiting period and that eligible patients be mentally competent, not mentally ill, and have a life expectancy of less than 6 months. In 2009, the Montana Supreme Court removed prohibitions against physician-assisted death for competent patients. There are no reporting requirements in Montana, so little is known about the actual practice of physician-assisted death in that state. In 2015, the Canadian Supreme Court unanimously reversed a federal law that prohibited physician-assisted death and gave the government until June 2016 to establish mechanisms for access to such assistance.1,2

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