MARCH 11, 1996 VOLUME 3, NUMBER 37
Although physician-assisted suicide has been much discussed in recent years, few legal developments have advanced the state of the law since Oregon voters approved an initiative measure in November, 1994. That changed dramatically this week, with two major developments. On Wednesday, a Federal Appeals Court ruled that Washington State’s ban on assisting with suicide is unconstitutional, at least as applied to “physician-aid-in-dying.” Then on Friday, a Michigan jury found Dr. Jack Kevorkian not guilty in his second criminal trial for allegedly assisting terminally ill patients to commit suicide.
Although the Kevorkian case is probably better-known, the Federal Court of Appeals decision is of far more significance, particularly in Arizona. The case, Compassion in Dying v. State of Washington, was decided by the Court of Appeals responsible for reviewing Arizona, California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Idaho and Montana laws. Since it is based on the U.S. Constitution, the case stands as precedent for all those states, at least until the U.S. Supreme Court rules otherwise.
The Compassion in Dying case began after Washington voters turned down an initiative measure on physician-assisted suicide. In spite of the election results, a group of Washington doctors formed Compassion in Dying, a non-profit group, to help terminally ill patients effectively and painlessly end their lives.
Compassion in Dying, its doctor members, and three terminally ill patients sued in Federal Court to invalidate Washington’s criminal statute on assisting suicide. The patients, all three of whom have since died, are described in the Court of Appeals decision by pseudonyms:
- Jane Roe, 69, a retired pediatrician. Ms. Roe had suffered from cancer for six years, and the disease had metastasized throughout her skeleton by the time the lawsuit was filed. She was in constant pain, and suffered from swollen legs, bedsores, nausea, vomiting, impaired vision and other effects of her illness.
- John Doe, 44, an artist suffering from AIDS. Mr. Doe had been diagnosed three years earlier, and had lost 70% of his vision, suffered from pneumonia, skin and sinus infections, seizures and extreme fatigue.
- James Poe, 69, a retired sales representative suffering from emphysema. Mr. Poe was connected to an oxygen tank at all times, constantly felt he was being suffocated and took morphine regularly to calm his panic reaction. Like the others, he was in the terminal phase of his illness.
The Court, in an eloquent and thoughtful decision, found that the U.S. Constitution permits a competent terminally ill patient to have aid from a physician in ending his or her life. Washington’s statute (which is nearly identical to Arizona’s) is therefore invalid as applied to physician-aid-in-dying.
In reaching its conclusion, the Court assayed the history of suicide in ancient times and modern opinion. According to the Court, ancient Greeks, Romans and Christians viewed suicide as acceptable, particularly where the victim was ill and in pain. And public opinion polls show a dramatic shift on the subject in recent years: while 37% of respondents favored permitting doctors to assist terminally ill patients to commit suicide in 1947, more than half were in favor in a 1973 poll. By 1983, 63% favored physician-aid-in-dying.
Although there is no guarantee that the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on the question, an appeal to that court is expected.