August 26, 2016
by Sean Philpott-Jones, Chair, Bioethics Program of Clarkson University & Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
How to Die in California
Late last month, Betsy Davis died at her home in Ojai, California. The 41-year-old performance artist was suffering from ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disorder, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which had already robbed her of the ability to stand, to walk, and to speak clearly. Facing the prospect of a slow and lingering death as she lost her capacity to move, to eat and, eventually, to breathe, Ms. Davis took her own life by taking a lethal dose of barbiturates.
In doing so, Betsy Davis became the first terminally ill patient to die under California’s End of Life Options Act. That law, which went into effect in June of this year, allows a terminally ill resident of California to be prescribed a lethal dose of drugs so long as they meet certain medical criteria, make two oral and one written request for physician aid-in-dying, and have the ability to take the drugs without assistance.
In passing the End of Life Options Act, California became the fifth state to legalize physician aid-in-dying. Oregon was the first state to legalize the practice by popular referendum, implementing it in 1998. Washington and Vermont followed suit in 2008 and 2013, respectively. Montana is the only other state where the practice is allowed, the result of a Montana Supreme Court ruling that nothing in that state’s laws prevents the practice.
California’s Act was passed largely thanks to the efforts of two advocacy groups.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.