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California’s New “Right to Die” Signed Into Law

As a business and intellectual property lawyer, it may seem strange to see me post about California’s new “right to die” law. However, like many lawyers and scholars, it’s an area that has always interested me, and one I’ve been published on in the past. (Click here for my comparison of U.S. and European euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide laws, published in the Syracuse Law Review in 2012.)

Four states currently allow for the “right to die” or have “death with dignity” laws—Montana, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington. So what does this law do for Californians or, more importantly, what doesn’t it do?

What It Does:

Much of the California law is based on “right to die” laws in other states: it allows someone suffering from a terminal disease to request medication for the purpose of ending his or her life. It allows the person to consume the drugs without breaking the law, and prohibits anyone to help administer the drug to the person. As long as a person ends their own life according to the new law, it can’t be legally deemed suicide, homicide, or abuse.

What It Doesn’t Do:

It doesn’t allow for lethal injection, “mercy killings,” or active euthanasia. It doesn’t allow for people with mental illness or depression to receive life-ending medication unless they receive and pass an assessment by a mental health specialist. If the person suffers from impaired judgment due to their mental disorder, they will not receive the medication. It doesn’t require a doctor or health care provider to provide life-ending medication, and indeed makes it voluntary. (However, anyone who provides it must comply with the new law.)

In effect, California’s new law regulates the ability of its residents to end their own lives. It tries to remedy the issue that Brittany Maynard, the 29-year old California woman with brain cancer, experienced. Rather than ending her life in California, she moved to nearby Oregon because the state gave residents a similar “right to die.” Ms. Maynard passed away late last year.

In his letter to the California State Assembly, Gov. Jerry Brown ended with a frank and open realization:

I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain. I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I wouldn’t deny that right to others.

This new law, and especially what it represents in such a legally-important state as California, will produce a lot of discussion over the next several years and may go down in history books as a turning point for the “right to die” movement in the United States. However, it’s far too early to tell what kind of effect it will have, positive or negative.

But it’ll be interesting to watch.

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