California Penal Code 401 makes helping or encouraging another take their own life a criminal offense in the State of California. You may recall the now infamous Dr. Jack Kevorkian (Dr. Death) of the State of Michigan in the late 1990s where it was believed he assisted over 130 patients in their deaths and was eventually convicted of murder at the end of the decade.
Whether is portion of the code is referred to as “voluntary euthanasia” or “aiding” or “assisted suicide,” it is against the law in the State of California. This law applies to those that are friends, family members, or even a treating physician. Common examples of assisted suicide may be, but not limited to: giving a lethal dose of medication either in the form of pills or an injection. Assisting a person with a terminal illness in taking their own lives (providing the instrument/weapon). Giving another a lethal dose of liquid poison, etc. Physicians may also do the same through means of euthanasia, which is commonly a lethal dose of a medication (much like what is used for death row inmates).
As with Dr. Jack Kevorkian, physicians; however, are bound by a medical code of ethics to do no harm. Physicians are expected to uphold the ethical norms of their profession, including fidelity to patients and respect for patient self-determination. Yet physicians are not defined solely by their profession. They are moral agents in their own right and, like their patients, are informed by and committed to diverse cultural, religious, and philosophical traditions and beliefs. For some physicians, their professional calling is imbued with their foundational beliefs as persons, and at times the expectation that physicians will put patients’ needs and preferences first may be in tension with the need to sustain moral integrity and continuity across both personal and professional life.
When under the care of a physician, hospice or family, it is important to know the difference between physician-assisted suicide (aiding in a suicide) and medical aid in dying. While both practices are designed to bring about a peaceful death, the distinction between the two comes down to who administers the means to that peaceful death. Euthanasia is an intentional act by which another person (not the dying person) administers the medication. By contrast, medical aid in dying requires the patient to be able to take the medication themselves and therefore always remain in control. Euthanasia is illegal throughout the United States. Medical aid in dying is authorized in nine states including the State of California.
The American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, American Medical Women’s Association, American Medical Student Association and American Public Health Association have all adopted policies opposing the use of the terms “suicide” and “assisted suicide” to describe the medical practice of aid in dying. The American Association of Suicidology, a nationally recognized organization that promotes prevention of suicide through research, public awareness programs, education and training comprised of respected researchers and mental health professionals, asserts medical aid in dying is fundamentally distinct from suicide and that the term “physician-assisted suicide” should not be used. Whether you are a friend, family member, or physician, if you are faced with an allegation that is in violation of California Penal Code 401, please consult with legal counsel immediately.
Regardless of the classification of the offense, it is important that you seek the assistance of competent legal counsel to help you best understand your legal defense while identifying an outcome that best minimizes your risk. We here at the H Law group patiently await your call.