Amid legal challenges and an uncertain future, California's assisted death law saw a sharp uptick in use last year.
State public health officials reported Friday that 374 terminally ill patients took lethal drugs to the end their lives in 2017, the first full year that the law was in place. That is more than triple the number of individuals who died by ingesting the drugs in 2016, after the law took effect that June. The death rate doubled, from an average of 16.5 per month in 2016 to 31.2 in 2017.
Like during those first seven months, however, the patients who used the assisted death process last year were older, whiter and more educated than the California population as whole.
According to data compiled by the California Department of Public Health, more than 90 percent of individuals were 60 or older and about 89 percent were white. Almost 55 percent had completed a college education. The patients were nearly evenly split between women (51 percent) and men (47 percent).
Under California's assisted death law, physicians can prescribe lethal drugs to patients with less than six months to live. Advocates argue that the option provides dignity to dying individuals by giving them more control over the end of their lives. In more than 68 percent of the reported cases last year, cancer was the underlying illness.
A judge in Riverside County overturned the law last month, ruling that the Legislature improperly passed the measure during a special session on health care funding. Opponents also contend that the law lacks proper safeguards for the state's most vulnerable patients. The decision is currently on hold, pending an appeal by California's attorney general.