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California Euthanasia Laws

Euthanasia, or "mercy killing," is the act of taking someone's life who no longer wishes to live, typically because they have a terminal illness or some other debilitating condition. Currently only one state (Oregon) allows physician-assisted suicide, but many states do allow the withdrawal of life-sustaining machines or procedures. In California, euthanasia laws are not on the books. But the state's Natural Death Act allows the removal from life-support procedures or devices.

The basics of California euthanasia-related laws are listed in the table below and more extensive coverage follows. See FindLaw's Patient Rights Basics for more related articles and resources.

Code Section Probate §4653
Euthanasia Condoned in Statutes? Nothing condones, authorizes, or approves mercy killing or permits an affirmative act or omission to end life other than the withholding of health care pursuant to a durable power of attorney so as to permit the natural process of dying. In making health care decisions under a durable power of attorney, an attempted suicide shall not be construed to indicate a decision of the principal that health care treatment be restricted or inhibited.
Effect of Withholding of Life-Sustaining Procedures Death resulting from withholding or withdrawing life-sustaining treatment in accordance with the Natural Death Act does not constitute for any purposes suicide or homicide.

Euthanasia vs. Withdrawing Life Support

Euthanasia and withdrawing life support are covered by health care law. Whether either is allowed varies from state to state. Euthanasia is a word generally used to describe mercy killing or assisted suicide. Mercy killing differs from assisted suicide in that the patient or person in pain is killed by someone else. This can be through a lethal injection, overdose on a euphoric drug, or a more gruesome method if done by a non-professional. Assisted suicide is a broad term used to describe when someone helps the person in pain kill themselves. This can be through many different methods, but common methods are providing them with a syringe with a lethal dose of a drug, or giving them access to a drug that will provide a peaceful by effective overdose.

Withdrawing life support differs from euthanasia in that the person in pain cannot survive without medical care. This necessary medical care can be anything from artificial ventilation, nutrients delivered through an IV, or electrical pulses to keep a heart beating. In order to perform this, the patient must have previously consented to removing life support.

Euthanasia and Withdrawing Life Support in California

California probate law (Probate §4653) indicates that the only legal method for relieving someone of pain through death is by withholding healthcare in order to allow for a natural death. This means that mercy killing and euthanasia are illegal, and subject to criminal prosecution.

Punishment

Because there is no law in California that allows for euthanasia, a person who performs a mercy killing can be convicted of murder, manslaughter, or any other form of homicide. In addition to criminal prosecution, the person who performs the euthanasia may be liable in civil court for a wrongful death. Wrongful death is a personal injury suit usually brought by the family members of the person who died, and often comes after a criminal lawsuit.

Planning for Withdrawal of Life Support

In California, in order to adhere to the law behind withdrawing life support, the person in pain must have previously given power of attorney to another person, usually a close family member. Power of attorney gives that person the right to make decisions on behalf of the person in pain, sometimes including the right to withdraw life support. The main issue with power of attorney is that it must be given while the person in pain is legally competent to give power of attorney. For example, a person in a coma is not competent to give power of attorney. This means that it is prudent to complete a power of attorney in advance in order to prevent issues in the future.

If you would like to know more about the law behind euthanasia and withdrawing life support, there are many heath care attorneys throughout California who may be able to help. Health care lawyers, and estate planning lawyers are both able to help you complete a power of attorney.

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