5 facts about physician-assisted suicide in America

Earlier this week California became the latest—and most populous—state to pass an assisted dying bill. The California law, which was modeled on an Oregon law, will permit physicians to provide lethal prescriptions to mentally competent adults who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness and face the expectation that they will die within six months.

Here are five things you should know about physician-assisted suicide

1. Physician-assisted suicide (PAS) occurs when a physician facilitates a patient’s death by providing the necessary means and/or information to enable the patient to perform the life-ending act (e.g,. the physician provides sleeping pills and information about the lethal dose, while aware that the patient may commit suicide). The distinction between PAS and euthanasia is that in the latter, the lethal does is administered by someone other than the patient. So if a physician directly administered a lethal drug it would be euthanasia, either voluntary or non-voluntary (i.e., against the will of the patient).

2. Five states—California, Oregon, New Mexico, Washington, and Vermont — have legalized physician-assisted suicide. Currently, 1 in 6 Americans lives in a state where a doctor can prescribe a lethal dose of drugs to a patient. However, that may soon increase since nine other states have pending PAS legislation: Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania,

3. The American Medical Association opposes PAS and says it is “fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer, would be difficult or impossible to control, and would pose serious societal risks.”

4. In the case of Washington v. Glucksberg (1997), the Supreme Court ruled that the Due Process clause of the 14th Amendment does not guarantee an individual the right to PAS. The Court ruled that since the individual states can have a legitimate interest in prohibiting PAS. The ruling made it clear that legalizing or criminalizing PAS was a matter of states' rights.

5. Even in states where it is legal, there is not much demand for PAS. In 2013, 77 people in Oregon died by PAS, accounting for 0.21 percent of all deaths in the state. Similarly, in Washington in 2014 there were 170 deaths due to PAS, accounting for 0.33 percent of all deaths. (If PAS was legal in all 50 states and accounted for 0.25 percent of deaths in 2014 (2,596,993), there would have been 6,492 physician assisted suicides.)

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