Physician-assisted suicide is legal in ten US states and the District of Columbia. It is an option given to individuals by law in Colorado, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. It is an option given to individuals in Montana and California via court decision. Individuals must have a terminal illness as well as a prognosis of six months or less to live. Physicians cannot be prosecuted for prescribing medications to hasten death.
Mandated by State Law
Mandated by Court Ruling
The specific method in each state varies, but mainly involves a prescription from a licensed physician approved by the state in which the patient is a resident.
Many proponents of the practice now refer to the term as Physician-assisted death (PAD) and no longer include the word “suicide” when describing the act.
Physician-assisted suicide differs from euthanasia, which is defined as the act of assisting people with their death in order to end their suffering, but without the backing of a controlling legal authority.
The process of reporting applications and deaths varies by state.
California – According to the state’s 2018 Department of Public Health annual report, 452 individuals received prescriptions and 337 people died after ingestion of the dispensed medication between January 1st and December 31, 2018.
Colorado – The state Department of Public Health and Environment reported that in 2020, 188 prescriptions for aid-in-dying medication were written by physicians for patients, and in 145 of those, the medication was dispensed by a pharmacy.
Oregon – Has had a physician-assisted suicide law on the books since 1997. Since its enactment, there has been a steady increase in both prescription recipients and the number of deaths. According to the 2020 Data Summary, as of January 22, 2021, prescriptions have been written for 2,895 people, and 1,905 patients have died from ingesting the drugs that were legally prescribed to them under the law.
Washington – According to the 2019 annual report, since 2009 prescriptions have been written for 1,668 people, and there have been 1622 reported deaths.
June 1997 – The US Supreme Court rules that state laws banning physician-assisted suicide do not violate the Constitution in the case Washington v. Glucksberg. The court left the matter of the constitutionality of a right to a physician’s aid in dying to the states.
October 27, 1997 – Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act becomes law. Passed in a 1994 election with 51% of voters in favor, the law was delayed initially because US District Judge Michael Hogan issued an injunction and then ruled it unconstitutional. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the ruling and the injunction was lifted when the US Supreme Court referred the matter back to the state in 1997.
November 1998 – American pathologist and assisted suicide advocate Jack Kevorkian, known as “Dr. Death,” videotapes the death of Thomas Youk, submits it to CBS’s 60 Minutes and it is broadcast on television. The airing prompts murder charges against Kevorkian, rather than assisted suicide charges, because Kevorkian injected the drug into Youk, who had Lou Gehrig’s disease.
March 26, 1999 – Kevorkian is convicted of second-degree murder and delivery of a controlled substance. He serves eight years of a 10 to 25-year sentence.
November 4, 2008 – Washington’s initiative, the Death with Dignity Act, is passed with 57.91% of voters in favor.
March 5, 2009 – The Washington Death with Dignity Act goes into effect.
December 31, 2009 – A Montana Supreme Court ruling in the case Baxter v. Montana asserts that the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act protects a physician who prescribes aid from liability.
May 20, 2013 – Vermont signs the Patient Choice and Control at End of Life Act into law.
January 13, 2014 – New Mexico Second Judicial District Judge Nan Nash rules in favor of an individual’s right to die in the case Morris v. Brandenberg. In appeal by the Office of the New Mexico Attorney General, the case is assigned to the New Mexico Court of Appeals/Supreme Court. The ruling remains in effect but only for Bernalillo County, according to the attorney general’s office.
November 1, 2014 – Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old with terminal brain cancer, ends her life under Oregon’s “Death with Dignity Act.” She had moved to Oregon following her January 1, 2014, prognosis in order to take advantage of the Death with Dignity law. There is no such law in her native California. She garnered a large following advocating for physician-assisted suicide laws via social media.
October 5, 2015 – California Governor Jerry Brown signs into law the End of Life Option Act, which legalizes physician-assisted suicide for Californians with terminal illnesses. In a letter to members of the California State Assembly, Brown wrote that he thought about his own death while considering whether to sign the bill. “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.”
March 10, 2016 – The California legislature adjourns a special session, paving the way for the End of Life Option Act to take effect on June 9.
November 8, 2016 – Colorado voters approve Proposition 106, which includes the Colorado End of Life Options Act. It takes effect on December 16, 2016.
December 19, 2016 – The District of Columbia signs the Death with Dignity Act into law. The Act goes into effect February 18, 2017.
April 5, 2018 – Hawaii’s “Our Care, Our Choice Act” is signed into law. The Act goes into effect January 1, 2019.
May 15, 2018 – California’s Riverside County Superior Court Judge Daniel Ottolia overturns the 2016 state law that allows doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill adult patients. In his tentative oral ruling, he says it is unconstitutional because the Legislature passed it during a special session convened by Gov. Jerry Brown to address health care-related issues. The state attorney general has five days to file an emergency writ, a type of appeal, to seek a stay and keep the law in place.
May 15, 2018 – Judge Ottolia issues an oral ruling in favor of the plaintiffs and ends physician-assisted suicide in the state of California. A motion to vacate the judgment is rejected. Five days later, Ottolia issues his written opinion. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra requests an immediate stay and appeals to the state’s Court of Appeals. In June, the judgment ending physician-assisted suicide is stayed by the appellate court, making it legal in California again, pending further litigation.
February 27, 2019 – The California Supreme Court affirms the stay issued by the state’s Court of Appeals, making the option of aid in dying legal for terminally-ill adults who meet certain qualifications.
April 12, 2019 – New Jersey Gov Phil Murphy signs the Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act into law. It will allow adults with a prognosis of six months or less to live to get a prescription for life-ending medication. The law requires either a psychiatrist or psychologist must determine that the patient has the mental capacity to make the decision. The law goes into effect on August 1.
June 12, 2019 – Maine Gov. Janet Mills signs the Death with Dignity Act into law. The legislation says mentally competent patients over age 18 with terminal diseases that, “within reasonable medical judgment, produce death within 6 months” can request life-ending medication. It requires those patients to make two verbal and one written request for the medication with waiting periods between the requests and receiving the prescription for lethal medication.
April 8, 2021 – New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signs the Elizabeth Whitefield End-of-Life Options Act, allowing terminally ill adults with a prognosis of six months or less to live to ask physicians for lethal medication. The patient must take the lethal medication themselves. The law goes into effect on June 18.