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
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.
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.
Oregon voters narrowly (51 to 49) approve an initiative legalizing physician-assisted
suicide. A federal judge immediately declares the move unconstitutional.
A three-judge panel in San Francisco's 9th Circuit Court upholds Washington's
ban against assisted suicide.
One year later, the full Circuit Court reverses that decision.
Once again, Washington's ban is lifted.
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.
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.
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.