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California Euthanasia Laws

Euthanasia, or "mercy killing," is the act of taking someone's life who no longer wishes to live, typically because they have a terminal illness or some other debilitating condition. While euthanasia remains illegal in all states, a growing number of states -- including California -- do allow physician-assisted suicide. In addition to California's Natural Death Act, which allows the removal from life-support procedures or devices, the state's End of Life Option Act permits certain terminally ill patients to request lethal drugs which they administer on their own time.

The basics of California euthanasia-related laws are listed in the table below and more extensive coverage follows. See FindLaw's Patient Rights Basics for more related articles and resources.

Code Sections Probate §4653; Health and Safety Code, Division 1, section 443, et al
Euthanasia Condoned in Statutes?

Nothing condones, authorizes, or approves mercy killing or permits an affirmative act or omission to end life other than the withholding of health care pursuant to a durable power of attorney so as to permit the natural process of dying. In making health care decisions under a durable power of attorney, an attempted suicide shall not be construed to indicate a decision of the principal that health care treatment be restricted or inhibited.

However, physicians may assist eligible, terminally ill patients with ending their own lives (see below).

Effect of Withholding of Life-Sustaining Procedures Death resulting from withholding or withdrawing life-sustaining treatment in accordance with the Natural Death Act does not constitute for any purposes suicide or homicide.
Assisted Suicide Authorized? Certain terminally ill patients may end their lives with the aid of lethal medications prescribed by a physician (with certain conditions and safeguards) in accordance with the End of Life Option Act.

Euthanasia, Assisted Suicide, and Withdrawal of Life Support

Euthanasia and withdrawing life support are covered by health care law. Whether either is allowed varies from state to state. Euthanasia is a word generally used to describe mercy killing, which differs from assisted suicide in that the patient or person in pain is killed by someone else. Assisted suicide is a broad term used to describe the process of helping an individual end his or her life, a role typically limited to physicians. This can be through many different methods, but common methods are providing the individual with a syringe containing a lethal dose of a drug or a drug that will provide a peaceful but effective overdose.

Withdrawing life support differs in that the person in pain cannot survive without medical care. This necessary medical care can be anything from artificial ventilation, nutrients delivered through an IV, or electrical pulses to keep a heart beating. In order to perform this, the patient must have previously consented to removing life support. Withdrawal of life sustaining treatment is permitted in most states.

California's End of Life Option Act

The End of Life Option Act was signed into law in 2015, allowing terminally ill patients expected to die within six months to end their lives with the assistance of a physician. In order to be eligible, the decision to end one's life must be an informed one that is based on a medically confirmed diagnosis. Also, the patient must obtain a mental health screening to confirm that the patient has the capacity to make such a decision.

The individual requesting lethal drugs must be a resident of California who is able to establish residency through a state-issued ID, voter registration, proof of property ownership or lease in the state, or the filing of a California tax return in the most recent tax year.

In order to comply with the law, physicians may not prescribe lethal drugs as requested by the patient until after three requests are made (at least 15 days apart).

Planning for Withdrawal of Life Support

In California, in order to adhere to the law behind withdrawing life support, the person in pain must have previously given power of attorney to another person, usually a close family member. Power of attorney gives that person the right to make decisions on behalf of the person in pain, sometimes including the right to withdraw life support. The main issue with power of attorney is that it must be given while the person in pain is legally competent to give power of attorney. For example, a person in a coma is not competent to give power of attorney. This means that it is prudent to complete a power of attorney in advance in order to prevent issues in the future.

If you would like to know more about the law behind euthanasia and withdrawing life support, there are many heath care attorneys throughout California who may be able to help. Health care lawyers, and estate planning lawyers are both able to help you complete a power of attorney.

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