Death with dignity laws, also known as physician-assisted dying or aid-in-dying laws, stem from the basic idea that it is the terminally ill people, not government and its interference, politicians and their ideology, or religious leaders and their dogma, who should make their end-of-life decisions and determine how much pain and suffering they should endure.
Death with dignity statutes allow mentally competent adult state residents who have a terminal illness with a confirmed prognosis of having 6 or fewer months to live to voluntarily request and receive a prescription medication to hasten their inevitable, imminent death. By adding a voluntary option to the continuum of end-of-life care, these laws give patients dignity, control, and peace of mind during their final days with family and loved ones. The protections in the Act ensure that patients remain the driving force in end-of-life care discussions.
Existing physician-assisted dying laws mirror Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, which is widely acclaimed as successful and which independent studies prove has safeguards to protect patients and prevents misuse. The Death with dignity process is robust: Two physicians must confirm the patient’s residency, diagnosis, prognosis, mental competence, and voluntariness of the request. Two waiting periods, the first between the oral requests, the second between receiving and filling the prescription, are required.
Current Death with Dignity Laws
Seven states and Washington, D.C., have death with dignity statutes:
- California (End of Life Option Act; approved in 2015, in effect from 2016)
- Colorado (End of Life Options Act; 2016)
- District of Columbia (D.C. Death with Dignity Act; 2016/2017)
- Hawai‘i (Our Care, Our Choice Act; 2018/2019)
- Maine (Death with Dignity Act; 2019)
- New Jersey (Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act; 2019)
- Oregon (Death with Dignity Act; 1994/1997)
- Vermont (Patient Choice and Control at the End of Life Act; 2013)
- Washington (Death with Dignity Act; 2008)
Montana does not currently have a statute safeguarding physician-assisted death. In 2009, Montana’s Supreme Court ruled nothing in the state law prohibited a physician from honoring a terminally ill, mentally competent patient’s request by prescribing medication to hasten the patient’s death. Since the ruling, several bills have been introduced to codify or ban the practice, none of which have passed.