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The Physician-Assisted Suicide Debate in the Courts

By July 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of physician-assisted suicide based on two cases in Washington State and New York. Following are the milestones surrounding the polemical physician-assisted suicide debate:

1991


November
Voters in Washington State quash a ballot initiative seeking to legalize physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. The vote was 54 to 46.

In California, a similar ballot initiative is soundly defeated.

1994


March
A federal judge rejects a Washington state law making assisted suicide a crime. The suit was brought by the Seattle-based Compassion in Dying, three patients, and four physicians. The judge held that competent, terminally ill adults have a constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide.

November
Oregon voters narrowly (51 to 49) approve an initiative legalizing physician-assisted suicide. A federal judge immediately declares the move unconstitutional.

1995


March
A three-judge panel in San Francisco's 9th Circuit Court upholds Washington's ban against assisted suicide.

1996


March
One year later, the full Circuit Court reverses that decision. Once again, Washington's ban is lifted.

April
Compassion in Dying wins another case in New York, where a three-judge panel on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals strikes down a state law making it a felony to assist in a suicide.

1997


January
The U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments on the New York and Washington cases. The High Court will rule by July.

A Florida judge rules that a 35-year-old man dying of AIDS has a right to commit suicide with the aid of his doctor. Florida's attorney general appeals the decision; the state Supreme Court will hear the case May 9. This is the first ruling by a state judge in favor of physician-assisted suicide.

February
A federal appeals court in San Francisco rejects the challenge against Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law passed by voters in 1994. The law could take as long as six months to take full effect.

Opponents of physician-assisted suicide, including the Oregon Catholic Conference, Oregon Right To Life, and Physicians for Compassionate Care, won't be able to repeal the law but they are pushing a bill now before the Oregon House that would delay it from taking effect until 1999.

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