Foreign Policy / Healthcare / Uncategorized

‘Right to Die’ Case in UK, Reflection on Assisted Suicide in the US

History is still being made in the British Isles. In Wiltshire, a small county in the South-Eastern Britain, is in the midst of a landmark case pertaining to a patients ‘right to die.’

Wiltshire, indicated in red

Tony Nicklinson, 57, suffered from a stroke in 2005 which left him paralyzed from the neck down, also called “locked in syndrome.” Despite Mr. Nicklinson being mute and paralyzed, he can still move his eyes and is conscious. His representatives from Blindmans law firm stated “He communicates through the use of a Perspex board by using his Eye-Blink computer…” This type of communication has made it easier to determine that Mr. Niclinson is able to make his own decisions and, as previously states, conscious.

Representatives from Bindmans have released several statements arguing for his right to self-termination, saying he is too physically disabled to take his own life but wants the opportunity like any other physically healthy person.

Mr. Nicklinson’s argument is making it all the way up to the High Courts and is expected to be reviewed in a short amount of time. This is the first case of this nature, but in September of 2011, a high court judge ruled that a minimally conscious woman would not be allowed to die via withdrawing life support. Though a different scenario, this case could carry some weight in Nicklinson’s case.

Assisted Suicide in the United States

In the United States, the ruling on doctor assisted suicide, and suicide in general has become very clear and evident. Only in Washington, Oregon, and Montana are people allowed to seek physician-assisted suicide. While in eleven other states (see below map) where there are no laws which criminalize aiding, abetting, assisting or counseling suicide to patients. In the other thirty-six states the act of suicide, or assisting in someone’s suicide is punishable by law, usually under the parameters of manslaughter.

In 1996 and 1997, the Supreme Court ruled on two appealed cases, Vacco v. Quill and Washington v. Glucksberg. The issue in question was if assisted suicide is protected by the Constitution and if the people who aided in said suicide violated the 14th Amendment’s clause on Due Process. In a 9 to 0 vote, the Supreme court ruled that there was no constitutional right to die with the help of a physician within the Constitution, and upheld any ban that a state may create regarding assisted suicide.

Gonzales v. Oregon was brought to the Supreme Court in 2006 and it was ruled that the United States Attorney General could not enforce the Controlled Substances Act. This act regulates physicians prescribing drugs to assist terminally ill patients in committing suicide. However, because of Oregon’s Ballot Measure 16, which was established in 1994, the Controlled Substance Act has no authority in Oregon.

Oregon Ballot Measure 16 is the states way of ensuring that when a terminally ill patent wants to end their life prematurely is doing so in the correct state of mind.  The patient must see two different doctors that will confirm the diagnosis as terminal and the patient has only six months or less to live. There must be two witnesses, one doctor that is not regularly related to the patient that must confirm the request for an assisted suicide. Fifteen days later, the patient must then again make a second request to another witness. The law in Washington, passed in 2008, is modeled after this system.

California tried to pass Proposition 161, in 1992, which allowed patients with six months left to live the right to die via physician assistance. It also protected the physicians against prosecution. The proposition only gained 46% of the vote and did not end up passing into law.

The Florida Supreme Court has ruled against assisted suicide for AIDS patients, such as the case of Krischer v. McIver. While in Alaska, in 1999, two patients Kevin Sampson and Jane Doe, sued the state for an exemption for their physicians when they assisted them to die. The court ruled that previous rulings were correct in the thinking that it is a violation of Alaska’s Constitution and the right to privacy and liberty does not allow people to end their lives.

Texas is in an interesting position, as it condemns physician assisted suicide but under the Texas Futile Care Law, it allows physicians to withdraw life support from a patient should they believe that the attempt to prolong life is illogical.

By: Conor O’Malley

Green States represent states that permit doctor assisted suicide. Grey states have no enactments which criminalize aiding, abetting, assisting or counseling suicide. While red states consider suicide in any form to be illegal.


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