by Jess Pezley, Staff Attorney, American Association for Justice. This post reflects the views of Ms. Pezley and not those of the AAJ. For more information on California’s End of Life Option Act, please visit endoflifeoption.org.
Earlier this year, on June 9, California’s End of Life Option Act went into effect. Closely modeled after Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, the statute allows mentally competent adult residents, diagnosed with a terminal illness with a six-month or less prognosis, to voluntarily obtain and ingest a prescription to hasten their dying process.
For decades, advocacy organizations such as Compassion & Choices, have been fighting for increased end-of-life options, including medical aid-in-dying. In 1994, by voter initiative, Oregon became the first state to allow medical aid-in-dying. The law did not take effect until 1997, after a protracted legal battle to block it ended when voters rejected a legislature-sponsored initiative to repeal the law. Following the victory in Oregon, Washington passed a voter initiative in 2008, the Montana Supreme Court authorized medical aid in dying in 2009 (the only state to do so by judicial decree), and Vermont became the first legislature to authorize an end-of-life options bill in 2013.
At the United States Supreme Court, progress towards medical aid-in-dying was seen in Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health (acknowledging a constitutional right for individuals to refuse unwanted medical treatment) and Washington v. Glucksberg (acknowledging a constitutional right to palliative care, despite denying to recognize a constitutional right to medical aid-in-dying). Yet after years of advocacy, only a small handful of states had authorized medical aid-in-dying as an end-of-life option.
Then, in 2014, a 29-year-old woman with terminal brain cancer recorded a video that started a nationwide conversation. Viewed today over 11 million times, Brittany Maynard’s video advocates for the option to access medical aid-in-dying, not only in her home state of California, but across the nation. Her story—how she reluctantly uprooted her life and moved from her home in the San Francisco Bay Area to Oregon to access the state’s Death with Dignity Act—shaped the medical aid-in-dying movement for millions of Americans.
Brittany Maynard dedicated the final months of her life to increasing awareness of medical aid-in-dying; her message did not go unheard. In 2015, 25 state legislatures and the D.C. city council introduced medical aid-in-dying bills, and on October 5, 2015, Governor Brown signed into law the End of Life Option Act in Brittany’s home state of California.