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111 people have killed themselves under California’s new right-to-die law

By: Derek Hawkins, The Washington Post
June 28, 2017 Updated: June 29, 2017 at 11:13 am
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The mother of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old with Stage 4 brain cancer who took life-ending drugs in 2014, at the state capitol in Sacramento (Carl Costas/AP)

Tom House was about as robust and independent as anyone could hope to be as an octogenarian. A former Marine, private pilot and insurance broker, he was still chopping wood and going on miles-long jogs at his retirement home in Sonoma, Calif., long after his 80th birthday, relatives told the Sacramento Bee.

But last year, congenital heart disease and colon cancer took a toll on his body. Given just months to live, the 94-year-old decided to end his life on his own terms.

On a Monday last August, he spent the morning sharing memories with family and friends, according to NBC Bay Area. Then, with a doctor’s prescription, he drank a fatal dose of barbiturates from his favorite coffee mug and chased it with a martini. Less than an hour later, he was dead.

“He did it his way,” his daughter-in-law Esther House told NBC, choking back tears. “He went out his way. He really did.”

House was one of 111 people in California who took their own lives in the first six months of the state’s new right-to-die law, which allows terminally ill adults to request life-ending drugs from their doctors, according to a state health department report released Tuesday. The report offers the first snapshot of Californians who sought to end their lives under the legislation.

California enacted the End of Life Option Act on June 9 of last year amid heated debate over the ethics of permitting physicians to give lethal medications to patients suffering from malignant cancers and other terminal diseases. It is the fifth state in the country to enact right-to-die legislation, which was first adopted by Oregon in 1997.

Between the day California’s law took effect and Dec. 31, 2016, more than 250 people started what the law calls the “end-of-life option process,” making two verbal requests for aid-in-dying drugs, according to the report by the California Department of Public Health. Of those people, 191 received prescriptions written by 173 different physicians.

Health officials said 111 people ingested the drugs, killing themselves. Another 21 died of natural causes before taking the medication. It’s not clear what happened to the remaining 59 people who received prescriptions, the report said.

Those who ingested aid-in-dying drugs were mostly white, college-educated seniors who were receiving hospice or palliative care, according to the report. A little more than half were women.

Sixty-five people were suffering from malignant cancers, while 20 had neuromuscular disorders such as Parkinson’s or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Smaller numbers had heart or lung diseases, or other unspecified maladies.

There were six Asians, three blacks and three Hispanics, who ingested aid-in-dying drugs. The remaining 102 patients were white. Nearly all of them had insurance, most through Medicare or California’s Medi-Cal program. The median age was 73. Nearly three-quarters of patients had received at least some college education, according to the report.

The report’s findings mirror some statistics from Oregon, where the majority of patients last year were older than 65 and had terminal cancer. Although California is more racially diverse than Oregon, the vast majority of patients who took their own lives there last year were white, according to Oregon’s 2016 report on the state’s Death With Dignity Act.

California’s law was passed last year in a special session of the state assembly after a campaign driven by stories of terminally ill patients who were unable to access aid-in-dying drugs in the state. One such patient was Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old with stage 4 brain cancer who moved to Oregon in 2014 to end her life.

Compassion and Choices, a leading right-to-die advocacy group, said California’s findings were good news for the law’s supporters.

“The state’s data show that even during the early months of the law’s implementation, the law was working well and terminally ill Californians were able to take comfort in knowing that they had this option to peacefully end intolerable suffering,” Matt Whitaker, the group’s California director, said in a statement Tuesday.

Critics of the law argue it is unethical for physicians to hasten death in anyone, and warn that it is virtually impossible to tell if drugs were prescribed to a depressed or unwilling patient. The Life Legal Defense Foundation, American Academy of Medical Ethics and a group of doctors have sued in federal court to overturn the law, arguing it violates Californians’ civil rights by stripping terminally ill patients of certain legal protections and treating them differently than other patients.

“It’s really tragic that doctors are now thinking that the best they can do for a patient is to give them a handful of barbiturates and leave them to their own devices,” Alexandra Snyder, an attorney with Life Legal Defense Foundation, told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday.

John Minor, a retired psychologist from Manhattan Beach, Calif., was among those who killed themselves under the new law. He was an avid cyclist, runner and hiker until he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease, in his late 70s, as NPR reported earlier this month.

As Minor’s body deteriorated to the point where he struggled to eat or speak, he asked for aid-in-dying drugs. But his doctors refused.

“I started cold-calling — like, just different hospitals and different departments within different hospitals,” Jackie Minor, his daughter, told NPR.

Finally, the family found him a health plan that would write him a prescription. Last September, at the age of 80, he drank a cup of apple juice mixed with a fatal dose of the pills and died quietly, surrounded by his relatives.

“John did what was right for him,” his wife, Sherry Minor, told the Los Angeles Times. “He died peacefully, rather than in agony, and he was in control. He didn’t feel afraid or helpless.”

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