Dying on Your Own Terms: A Brief Look at Medical Aid in Dying

medical aid in dying

Frequently incorrectly called “assisted suicide” or “euthanasia,” medical aid in dying allows a terminally ill, yet still mentally capable adult who has six months or less to live, to end his life.

In states where medical aid in dying is allowed, terminally ill adults may seek a prescription from their medical doctor which will allow them to die peacefully in their sleep.

Replacing “Dr. Death” With Legislation

Jack Kevorkian, a Michigan pathologist, is attributed with bringing the issue of medical aid in dying or “right-to-die” legislation to the forefront of the nation’s attention.

Nicknamed “Dr. Death,” Kevorkian was a right-to-die supporter/fanatic who admitted to helping hundreds of terminally ill patients commit suicide in Michigan. Kevorkian built a “suicide machine” known as the Mercitron or Thanatron, and used it to inject lethal drugs into to individuals seeking his help in dying.

Those he assisted to die had illnesses including Alzheimer’s, cancer, Lou Gehrig’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and paralysis.

Federal prosecutors tried for over a decade to convict Kevorkian. Although he was charged with assisted suicide four times, his first three cases ended in acquittals and the last was a mistrial.

Then Kevorkian made a videotape of himself injecting a paralyzed man with lethal chemicals. The tape was broadcast on 60 Minutes. This fifth case led to criminal murder charges against Kevorkian. This time he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 8 years in prison.

Dr. Death was convicted in 1999 and released in 2007. He refused to engage in any more assisted suicides after his release from prison.

Without question, Kevorkian and his actions in assisting over 100 people to die, were controversial. But it cannot be denied that he made the nation sit up and take notice of the right-to-die issue. When Kevorkian was charged with murder in 1990 for assisting Janet Adkins to die, the charges were dropped because Michigan had no law against assisted suicide.

Since then, ten states and the District of Columbia have passed laws legalizing physician-assisted suicide or medical aid in dying.

Medical aid in dying legislation exists in:

  • Colorado,
  • the District of Columbia
  • Hawaii
  • Maine
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • Oregon
  • Vermont
  • Washington

Court decision allows medical aid in dying as an option in:

  • Montana and
  • California

Florida does not currently have medical aid in dying legislation. Legislation was proposed in 2020 but did not pass. Another bill has been introduced for 2023.

Is Medical Aid in Dying the Same as Euthanasia?

Depending on the legislation, this practice is generally called “medical aid in dying” or “physician aid-in-dying” but one thing it is not called is, “euthanasia.”

Why?

Because “euthanasia”—which is illegal in all states—refers to a situation where a third party, for example, Jack Kevorkian, administers a lethal dose or injection to the terminally ill patient —causing him to die.

Physician aid-in-dying or medical aid in dying, on the other hand, requires the patient to ask the doctor for medications to help him/her die and also puts the responsibility directly on the patient for deciding when or whether to take those lethal medications. The physician provides the medication but does nothing else. It is the patient’s choice whether or not to take them.

A Little About Medical Aid in Dying Legislation

In states that do have legislation allowing medical aid in dying, the law has specific protections put in place to ensure that the individual is making a free choice. For example, most medical aid in dying laws or legislation requires that the patient fill out a form requesting the lethal medication. There is strict patient eligibility criteria. Only adults over 18 may request such assistance. In addition, the patient must be competent and diagnosed with a terminal illness, not expected to live more than 6 months, and the diagnosis must be confirmed by two independent physicians.

There is also a waiting period of 15 days between oral and written requests that must be witnessed. Patients requesting medical aid in dying must be able to administer the drug themselves, and no one else may request the drug for them. Doctors are not required to prescribe the medication if they are not convinced the patient is making an informed decision.

Medical aid in dying or physician aid in dying is a hotly debated and controversial topic. However we come to it, death is a part of life that we all must face. Being prepared by having a comprehensive estate plan in place is one of the best things you can do.

Comprehensive Estate Plans that Provide You With Peace of Mind

Helping individuals plan their estate and navigate the probate process is what the attorneys at the SJF Law Group  do. We provide individualized estate plans and expertly guide individuals through the complex probate process, and capably handle all aspects of the creation, administration, and settlement of trusts as well. Contact us here or email us at: [email protected].

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