Assisted Suicide Legal History US

Physician-Assisted Suicide

For the most part, the current argument for physician-assisted suicide in the United States has much to do with whether or not, under special circumstances, is it morally and ethically permissible for a physician to provide the knowledge and/or means whereby a terminally ill patient can have his/her own life ended. In modern terms, this medical act, sometimes called PAS -- euthanasia, can be described as "deliberately bringing about the death of a person that is suffering from an incurable disease or condition through the administration of a lethal drug or by allowing the patient to die naturally by withholding treatment" (Glanze, 447).

The reasons for allowing such an act by a physician are often very controversial, but overall, physician-assisted suicide provides the patient with the dignity to die as painless as possible and with some modicum of contentment. Those that are against euthanasia generally base their opinions on ethical or religious values that go against physicians being allowed to help in the premature death of a patient. However, it is obvious that a patient with a sound mind has the right to refuse all medical treatment while knowing that such refusal will lead to his/her death.

In the United States, self-inflicted suicide is legal, but doing so with the assistance of a physician is illegal in almost every state. As of January of 2003, thirty-five states have enacted laws banning physician-assisted suicide; however, Oregon currently allows physician-assisted suicide under its highly controversial Death with Dignity Act, which allows terminally ill patients to lawfully obtain prescriptions for lethal medications from their physicians in order to take their own lives. Of course, the major development in the debate over PAS has much to do with advocate Jack Kevorkian and two very controversial court cases linked to him.

On June 4, 1990, Kevorkian, a former pathologist from Michigan, assisted in the suicide of Janet Adkins, a former Hemlock Society member who wanted Kevorkian's aid because she was suffering from Alzheimer's disease which robs the brain of knowledge, memory and the ability to take care of oneself. Ms. Adkins injected herself with a lethal dose of medication with the push of a button on a machine built by Kevorkian, and following this, Kevorkian was charged with murder, but a Michigan state judge dismissed the charge after ruling that the state had no law banning assisted suicide.

In 1991, Kevorkian helped Sherry Miller and Margaret Wantz commit suicide by using a machine that delivered carbon monoxide. Once again, murder charges were brought against him, but they were also dismissed. In 1992, Michigan governor John Engler signed a temporary ban on assisted suicide, yet Kevorkian continued his PAS activities until 1998 when another murder charge was brought against him due to helping Thomas Youk who suffered from Lou Gehrig's disease. In 1999, Kevorkian was found guilty of second-degree murder and was sentenced to prison where he currently resides. In all, Kevorkian attended at least one hundred and thirty suicides.

In a related case known as Quill v. Vacco, in 1994 physician Timothy Quill disputed New York State's prohibition on allowing physicians to prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill patients. His arguments were based on another physician from Washington State who challenged that state's ban on PAS. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York upheld the prohibition, but in 1996 the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision and ruled that New York's ban on assisted suicide was unconstitutional. However, this ruling did not stand, for in 1997 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that PAS was not a fundamental constitutional right which effectively overturned all state decisions. With this decision, the future of physician-assisted suicide appeared to be very uncertain, but regardless of what occurs, any and all legal decisions will help to shape the morals and behaviors of persons who are concerned about physician-assisted suicide in the United States.

As shown in the case of Janet Adkins and Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the Hemlock Society (now known as the End-Of-Life Choices), is dedicated to the idea that a person has the right to choose his/her own way of death if that person is afflicted with a terminal illness. This organization also supports "legislation to maximize end-of-life options throughout the United States" while providing "education, information and advice about choices at the end of life and options available to the terminally ill." But most importantly, this organization believes that "decisions about the end of life should rest in the individual's hands" and that the U.S. government must not "insist on a particular course of death" (End-Of-Life Choices, Internet). Thus, it is obvious that a good number of Americans have very specific ideas about assisted suicide and feel that the government should have no part in determining how or when a terminally ill person can die.

There are numerous legal arguments for and against physician-assisted suicide in the United States which are mostly based on irrational fears associated with abuse of the system. Some legal entities within the United States have recently said that legalizing assisted suicide would not be a good thing for public policy because of the risks to the American social system. For example, some believe that PAS should be allowed for a person who is stricken with a progressive and degenerative disorder that will not result in their death. In reality, others think that it is morally better to hold off using PAS in such a case until the quality of life has reached a very low point. Likewise, many wonder if it is morally right to let those with diseases like ALS or Alzheimer's experience a slow decline in the quality of life instead of using PAS to end their suffering.

In another example, if a legal policy of PAS was to be begun with the condition that the terminally ill patient requests death but is then further incapacitated before he/she can truly decide if PAS is what they want, this could also lead to social chaos. In this example, we are no longer dealing with just PAS but with issues of the so-called " legal slippery slope" that could lead to improper and immoral decisions, such as bringing about the deaths of those that place a huge financial burden on society.

Unlike the United States, physician-assisted suicide in Europe is quite different. In Sweden, there are no laws that specifically ban PAS; in Norway, the laws are similar except for having "criminal sanctions against assisted suicide by using the charge 'accessory to murder.' One legal example in Norway concerns a doctor who was found guilty of murder in 2000 for "giving an overdose of morphine to a woman chronically ill after 20 years with MS." In Norway, there are no laws at all about assisted suicide, and in Germany, there have been no penalties for either suicide or assisted suicide since 1751, but the direct killing by euthanasia is a crime (Assisted Suicide, Internet). With this information, it is clear that the people of Europe view assisted suicide much differently than Americans, perhaps because of Europe's more liberal attitudes concerning the rights of a person to run his/her own life as they see fit.

Therefore, it appears that physician-assisted suicide, under the right conditions and circumstances, seems to be an appropriate method for the elimination of pain and suffering for those that are terminally ill. An individual who maintains his/her mental awareness while ill should be given the choice of PAS regardless of how one's family feels about the matter. A person should always have the opportunity to die with dignity and not suffer the torments of a particular disease which will eventually result in their death. To be given life-extending medication or to be hooked up to a machine that keeps one alive against…