In 2014, Brittany Maynard, diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, made it her mission to educate individuals on the “right to die” laws, known as “death with dignity” laws. She also exercised her right to die with dignity by moving from California to Oregon because California did not have a “death with dignity” law.

Death with dignity laws permits mentally competent and terminally ill people to request and receive a medical prescription to end their lives. The person must be a resident of that jurisdiction to make the request.

Is Death with Dignity Considered Assisted Suicide? Is it Legal?

Death with dignity is typically deemed the same as assisted suicide. In both cases, a doctor allows the terminally ill person to end their life by prescribing substances that will end the individual’s life.

The legality of death with dignity or assisted suicide hinges on the state where the person lives. In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled states were unrestricted in passing regulations for and against assisted suicide. It decided there was no Constitutional right to assisted suicide. Not all states have passed legislation concerning assisted suicide.

In the states that have not enacted “death with dignity” legislation, assisting someone with ending their own life may be a homicide. The individual who helped with the suicide could also be charged in criminal court for the other individual’s death. Therefore, it is essential for all parties involved to understand how the laws work in their region regarding death with dignity.

The crime of homicide is defined as the unlawful killing of another human being. Homicides, especially culpable homicides, are deemed violent felonies and can result in very severe punishments. Briefly, a felony is a criminal offense that can lead to the defendant having to pay considerable fines, serving a prison sentence longer than one year, or both.

The charges that can be brought against someone for a homicide range from intentional killings, such as murder, to non-intentional killings, such as manslaughter. Both murder and manslaughter are the two most common types of homicide crimes.

The legal consequences for committing a homicide can be dire, primarily if the charges result in a murder conviction (opposed to the penalties for involuntary manslaughter).

  • The following is a list of potential penalties for homicide charges that lead to a murder conviction:
  • Capital punishment (note that this punishment is only allowed for first-degree murder convictions);
  • Imprisonment (anywhere from ten years to a life sentence);
  • Loss of the privilege to possess a deadly weapon;
  • Inability to get occupational licenses (e.g., medical license); and
  • The defendant may also be subject to a civil suit for wrongful death.

Homicide charges are normally categorized as felony crimes. Felonies can result in serious criminal consequences, including time in prison for over a year, criminal fines, and other penalties.

How Many States Have Death with Dignity Laws?

As of May 2022, eight states have passed legislation concerning assisted suicide: California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, Oregon, Washington, Vermont, and Washington, D.C. Each state may have different conditions and details associated with their specific death with dignity statutes.

For example, in Oregon, a resident must obey specific steps to end their life. This includes going through a waiting period and signing a release form before receiving the medication. It is essential to check with each state to confirm the requirements.

Besides these states, other states may have legislation in progress that cover the issue. Examples of such states include Montana and New Mexico. Regulations in such states may be subject to opposition.

What Is a Doctor’s Duty to Disclose?

Physicians must disclose all pertinent information regarding medical treatment or medical procedures to patients.

A patient must give informed consent before a physician can perform a medical procedure. A patient needs enough info to make an educated and informed decision regarding their medical care. If physicians fail to disclose pertinent info, they can be held liable for medical malpractice.

What Type of Information Does a Doctor Have to Disclose?

A doctor must disclose all relevant info, including:

  • What type of illness or condition you have;
  • What treatments and procedures are available;
  • What the treatments and procedures involve;
  • The likelihood of success for those treatments and procedures;
  • The dangers involved with those treatments and procedures;
  • The hazards of not undergoing the treatments or procedures;
  • What alternative treatments or practices are available;
  • The dangers of alternative treatments or procedures.

What Is the Medical Standard of Care?

A doctor must use the average doctor’s degree of care and skill who practices in that particular specialty. This takes into consideration the medical knowledge available to the doctor.
The standard of care is based on the traditional practices of the average doctor, which means that it is based on what the average doctor would customarily or generally do in comparable circumstances.

If a physician’s conduct falls below this standard of care, there is medical negligence, although you also have to establish other elements before filing a medical malpractice claim.

Does Everything Need to Be Disclosed?

Physicians are only required to make disclosures mandated by law, but they do not need to disclose every possible risk or medical alternative. The general standard applied is that a physician is bound to disclose the information if a reasonable doctor would disclose the information.

Physicians do not need to disclose risks to their patients if they do not want to know if it would harm them, or if it’s a simple procedure and the medical community views the danger as low.

How Is a Patient’s Consent Obtained?

Patients will often give their consent to a physician or hospital in writing, but patients can give oral consent. When a patient needs immediate care in emergencies but cannot speak or otherwise give consent for treatment, then consent is implied.

What if the Duty to Disclose is Breached?

Courts have ruled that a physician is negligent if they fail to inform a patient enough to enable the patient to give informed consent. State regulations can differ, but a patient can normally recover damages for lack of informed consent if:

  • The patient was unaware of the dangers associated with the medical treatment or procedure;
  • The physician did not disclose the risk;
  • The patient would have selected a different treatment or approach if they had known the risk;
  • The treatment or procedure injured or harmed the patient.

If any of these components are missing, there may not be a feasible medical malpractice claim.

Should I Discuss Death with Dignity Laws with a Lawyer?

Death with dignity laws are complicated, and abiding by them can be tricky. Depending on state laws and patient disclosure/consent, there can be significant consequences for the individuals and parties involved. Nevertheless, speaking with a criminal lawyer isn’t necessary until you’ve taken other steps.

First, it is essential to understand the laws in your state and the required procedures, including any necessary visits to a physician or submitting any potential paperwork.

If you live in a state that permits death with dignity, look on your state government’s website to find out the details. Most significantly, speak to your doctor and find out what options you might have.