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Doctor Assisted Suicide

January 8, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The Supreme Court today considered one of the most difficult questions of this term: Should the court declare a constitutional right for physicians to help terminally ill patients commit suicide? Two cases are before the court, one from Washington State and the other from New York.

They are among the most closely watched appeals since 1992, when the Supreme Court reaffirmed the constitutional right to an abortion. Dozens of groups and individuals have filed friend of the court briefs. We begin our coverage with this backgrounder on the Washington case from Rod Minott of KCTS-Seattle.

JINNY TESIK: This is one of my favorite pictures of him in Egypt on a camel. That was again during the war.

ROD MINOTT: Jinny Tesik remembers a time when her father, Lon Fletcher, was a healthy, active man. A paratrooper in the Second World War, he had survived heavy combat, but years later there was another battle he would not overcome.

JINNY TESIK: Here you can begin to see the difference in him with emphysema. But look at the difference of his eyes and his face. It’s just, you know, he’s a very changed person.

ROD MINOTT: Years of heavy smoking left him short of breath and tethered to an oxygen bottle.

JINNY TESIK: I don’t think that there was as much pain involved as there was just total disability for a man who’d been pretty active. Honestly, he wasn’t getting up out of his chair. His body was wasting away.

ROD MINOTT: Tesik says her father wanted to end his life, but his doctor refused to prescribe a lethal dose of pills. As a result, she was forced to help him stockpile medication, guessing at how much the 76-year-old man would need to commit suicide successfully.

JINNY TESIK: He wasn’t afraid. He was really ready. And about 5 or so in the afternoon he said for me to go now. And that was hard–to walk away from him, to know that he was going to have to do this by himself. And I came back maybe five hours later, and I didn’t know what I was going to find. I was scared because not that I was afraid to find him dead, but I was afraid to find him still alive. And he wasn’t. And I was very, very grateful for that.

ROD MINOTT: Tesik said she couldn’t be with her dying father, nor would the doctor prescribe a lethal dose of pills because under Washington State law assisting in a suicide is illegal. Originally passed in the 19th century, the statute makes assisted suicide a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. No charges were ever brought against Tesik, but she and others are now hoping a landmark lawsuit will overturn the state’s ban, as well as similar laws across the country that bar physician-assisted suicide.

WOMAN ON PHONE: Compassion in Dying. This is Kim.

ROD MINOTT: The Washington State lawsuit was filed in 1994 by a Seattle based group, Compassion in Dying, which counsels terminally ill patients on how to take their own lives. The case is brought on behalf of four physicians and three terminally ill patients who are now deceased. Last spring federal appeals courts upheld lawsuits filed by Compassion in Dying in both Washington State and New York. In its decision in the Washington State case, the 9th Circuit Court said the ban was a denial of due process under the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The court ruled there is a constitutionally protected liberty interest in determining the time and manner of one’s own death. Kathryn Tucker is an attorney for Compassion in Dying.

KATHRYN TUCKER, Attorney, Compassion in Dying: The 9th Circuit’s ruling is quite narrow. The case is quite narrow, limited to mentally competent terminally ill patients who would choose to have a dignified and humane death by self-administering medications for the purpose of ending their life.

ROD MINOTT: The 9th Circuit ruling also relied heavily on past U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have expanded liberty rights on abortion. Last fall the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear challenges to both the 9th and 2nd Circuit Court rulings which struck down laws that bar doctor-assisted suicide. At heart is the question of whether the terminally ill have a constitutionally protected right to end their own lives. Kathryn Tucker argues they do.

KATHRYN TUCKER: Our Constitution protects liberty, and our claim is that this kind of a decision is an intensely personal decision, and it’s a decision about your own body and the own–your own life. And so for the state to intrude into and control that decision is a deprivation of liberty.

ROD MINOTT: But critics say there is no such legal right, and they warn of possible abuses if physician-assisted suicide is legalized.

CHRISTINE GREGOIRE, Washington State Attorney General: I felt that this issue was such a watershed constitutional issue that the best I could do was get it before the court.

ROD MINOTT: Christine Gregoire is attorney general for the state of Washington. She’s urging the Supreme Court to reverse the 9th Circuit ruling.

CHRISTINE GREGOIRE: You simply ask the U.S. Supreme Court to find a liberty interest in assisted suicide. Then to whom? To the terminally ill, what’s your definition of terminally ill? To adults only? Why just adults? Why not children as well? To only the mentally competent? Well, what’s the constitutional argument to say only to the mentally competent? And at what point do you say you have two physicians that see you to say you’re mentally competent versus three versus one, I mean, who sets the parameters, who sets the regulations?

ROD MINOTT: Gregoire argues that if anyone is going to decide that issue, it should be the state and not the federal government.

CHRISTINE GREGOIRE: And we are arguing this is not the province of the court to be telling the state how to view these issues. It’s a legislative matter. It’s a matter for the citizens of our respective states to say when they want assisted suicide if they do and under what circumstances.