Earlier this month a new law took effect that makes California the latest — and most populous — state to legalize physician-assisted suicide. A similar law was passed last week by the Canadian parliament. Once approved, Canada will join Albania, Colombia, Switzerland, and the Netherlands in implementing nationwide laws allowing assisted suicide. Here are nine things you should know about physician-assisted suicide:
1. Physician-assisted suicide (PAS) (also known as physician-assisted death, or PAD) 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 dose 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, Washington, Montana, and Vermont—have legalized physician-assisted suicide in some form. PAS remains illegal by statute in Montana, but a 2009 Montana Supreme Court decision shields doctors from prosecution so long as they have the patient's request in writing. New Mexico's statutes continue to list assisted suicide as a fourth-degree felony, but the courts briefly made the practice legal in 2014 before the New Mexico Court of Appeals ruled against it.
3. Currently, one in six Americans lives in a state where a doctor can prescribe a lethal dose of drugs to a patient. However, that number may soon increase since nine other states have pending PAS legislation: Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania,
4. 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.”