In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of states considering death with dignity laws. Sometimes called "assisted suicide" or "right to die" initiatives, these laws make it possible for terminally ill patients to use prescribed medication to end their lives peacefully rather than suffering a painful and protracted death.
The catalyst for greater national attention to this issue was 29-year-old Brittany Maynard, a woman diagnosed with terminal brain cancer who moved from California to Oregon to end her life in 2014. Maynard chose Oregon because California had not yet passed its aid-in-dying law, and Oregon is one of just a few other states to allow terminally ill patients to legally end their lives.
Spurred by Maynard's decision and the passage of aid-in-dying laws in other states since then, Arkansas lawmakers introduced a death with dignity bill for the first time in 2019. The bill, called the Compassionate Care End-of-Life Option Act (HB1536), died in the House Public Health Committee after legislators failed to bring it up for a vote. If it had passed, the law would have functioned much like Oregon's Death With Dignity Act, allowing terminally ill patients who met certain requirements to request and use life-ending medication.
Before 2019 Arkansas had never officially considered adopting a death with dignity law. The state has, in fact, taken an opposing path, declaring it a crime for a health care professional to knowingly prescribe medication intended to cause death. (Arkansas Code § 5-10-106.) (The proposed bill, however, would have made exceptions for physicians who prescribe aid-in-dying medication under the Compassionate Care End-of-Life Option Act. (See HB1536, Section 1(a)(2).))
Citizen groups are continuing to work to legalize aid in dying in Arkansas. If choice at the end of life is important to you, here are some things you can do:
"Death with dignity" is one of the most commonly accepted phrases describing the process by which a terminally ill person ingests prescribed medication to hasten death. You may also see the phrase "right to die" used in place of "death with dignity." However, "right to die" is more accurately used in the context of directing one's own medical care—that is, refusing life-sustaining treatment such as a respirator or feeding tubes when permanently unconscious or close to death. In Arkansas or any other state, you have a right to provide such directions or give any other health care instructions by completing an advance health care directive.
For information about appointing a health care agent and making known your wishes for medical care at the end of life, see the Living Wills & Medical Powers of Attorney section of Nolo.com.
To find out more about the history and current status of death with dignity laws in the United States, visit the website of the Death With Dignity National Center.
Updated January 21, 2022