HEALTH

Assisted Suicide Gets More Popular Every Year In The US

California could be the fifth state to allow the controversial practice for terminally ill patients. So far 1,000 people in the U.S. have used physician-assisted suicide in states where it's legal.

Sep 10, 2015 at 3:53 PM ET

California is getting closer to becoming the fifth state to allow physician-assisted suicide, after Oregon, Washington, Vermont and Montana. One lesson from the states where it’s already legal: If you offer the assisted-suicide option, growing numbers of people will take advantage of it.

After California Assembly passed the physician-assisted suicide bill Thursday, the legislation now moves to the state Senate, where it is expected to pass. The governor, who has yet to take a public position on the issue, also has to approve it. Oregon was the first to make assisted suicide legal, in 1997, with the Death With Dignity Act, which allows terminally ill people to end their lives by self administering lethal medications that have been prescribed by a physician for that purpose.

More 10,600 People In This Country Have Hired A Doctor To Kill Them

For over a decade, Oregon was the only state where assisted suicide was legal. In 2008, Washington passed a measure legalizing it, followed by Montana’s Supreme Court ruling in 2009 that nothing in state law prohibited a physician from honoring a terminally ill person’s wish to die. In 2013, Vermont enacted its own Death With Dignity law. California’s bill models itself after Oregon’s law.

Since Oregon and Washington are the states where the laws have been around for the longest, they have collected the most data on the people utilizing them. In both states, the number of people who die under the Death With Dignity Act has increased significantly almost every year since it passed.

In Oregon, 1,327 people have had prescriptions written and 859 patients died from ingesting medications prescribed since 1997, according to the Oregon Public Health Division’s latest report. In Washington, 376 have been prescribed medication and 240 died between 2009 and 2012, according to the Washington State Department of Health. In 2012, 85 people killed themselves in Oregon via assisted suicide; in Washington, the number was 83.

In both Washington and Oregon, the overwhelming majority of patients who get the prescriptions have cancer (73 percent in Washington and 80 percent in Oregon in 2012). ALS was the second most-common illness among patients in both states.