The Kevorkian Verdict

THE LAW ON ASSISTED SUICIDE


On July 26, 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld decisions in New York and Washington state that criminalized assisted suicide. These decisions overturned rulings in the 2nd and 9th Circuit Courts of Appeal which struck down state statutes banning physician-assisted suicide. Those courts had found that the statutes, which prohibited doctors from prescribing lethal medication to competent, terminally ill adults, violated the 14th Amendment. In striking the appellate decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court found that there was no constitutional "right to die," but left it to individual states to enact legislation permitting or prohibiting physician-assisted suicide. (The full text of these decisions, plus reports and commentary, can be found at the Washinton Post web site.)

As of April 1999, physician-assisted suicide is illegal in all but a handful of states. Over thirty states have enacted statutes prohibiting assisted suicide, and of those that do not have statutes, a number of them arguably prohibit it through common law. In Michigan, Jack Kevorkian was initially charged with violating the state statute, in addition to first-degree murder and delivering a controlled substance without a license. The assisted suicide charge was dropped, however, and he was eventually convicted of second degree murder and delivering a controlled substance without a license.

Only one state, Oregon, has legalized assisted suicide. The Oregon statute, which went into effect in October 1997, provides that a doctor may prescribe, but not administer, a lethal dose of medication to a patient who has less than six months to live. Two doctors must agree that the patient is mentally competent and that the decision was voluntary. As of April 1999, 23 patients were given drugs under the statute, and 15 of them used the drugs to commit suicide. A report released by the Oregon state Health Division reviewing the first year of the law's implementation found that the law was working well and had not been subject to abuse.

At the federal level, the only legislation addressing this issue (as of April 1999), is the Assisted Suicide Funding Restriction Act. This law prohibits federal money from being used in support of physician assisted suicide. However, in 1998, House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde and Senator Don Nickles introduced bills in the House and Senate which would revoke the licence to prescribe federally controlled drugs from any doctor who participated in an assisted suicide. If such legislation passed, doctors in Oregon, or any other state that legalized assisted suicide, would be subject to the federal sanction even though their actions were permitted under state law. The bills were not enacted into law before the end of the congressional session, but may be revived in 1999.



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