Upset of ban on suicide muddies legal picture

May 05, 1994|By Seattle Times

SEATTLE -- Despite a federal judge's ruling that Washington state's law banning assisted suicide is unconstitutional, it's not clear whether doctors have a green light to help terminally ill patients openly end their lives.

If asked tomorrow for medication that would help a suffering, dying patient commit suicide, "I would do it. I'm sure I would," said Harold Glucksberg, a cancer specialist who is one of four doctors, three patients and a right-to-die group that successfully sued the state.

But Tom Preston, a cardiologist who is also a plaintiff in the case, said he wasn't convinced that doctors would be protected from liability.

"It's still fairly risky business, and I think doctors should proceed with caution because we're still in a legal limbo," Dr. Preston said.

Other doctors, however, said they were elated by Tuesday's decision by U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein, who agreed with arguments that the state law violated the U.S. Constitution's guarantees of liberty and equal protection.

Although a state court has overturned Michigan's law on constitutional grounds, this is the first time a federal court has ruled on the right of a patient to receive help from a physician in committing suicide.

The ruling will help clear the air around an issue shrouded in secrecy and double-speak, the doctors predicted.

"It will let people be more honest, let them have more control over the terminal phase of their lives when they're suffering," said Dr. Glucksberg.

Although the ruling theoretically allows doctors to prescribe fatal doses of medicine, Washington state Assistant Attorney General Bill Williams cautioned that the issue would not be settled until the appeals process was completed.

The law is still on the books, and if it were eventually upheld, someone who assists a suicide could be prosecuted later, Mr. Williams said. He said the state likely will appeal.

In her ruling, Judge Rothstein said a dying person has a right to commit suicide just as a woman has a right to an abortion or a patient has a right to refuse life support.

"There is no more profoundly personal decision, nor one which is closer to the heart of personal liberty, than the choice which a terminallyill person makes to end his or her suffering and hasten an inevitable death," Judge Rothstein wrote.

She said a terminally ill person's decision to end his life is just as deserving of protection from "unwarranted governmental interference" as the decision to have an abortion, and should be protected under the 14th Amendment.

In addition, prescribing pills for a patient to use to end his life is not fundamentally different from the patient's right to refuse unwanted life-support treatment, Judge Rothstein said.

Opponents of abortion said they were dismayed by the coupling of abortion-case reasoning with the assisted-suicide issue.

"Oh, so if they can kill their baby, they can kill themselves," said state Sen. Linda Smith.

"I think what we're doing is encouraging the handicapped and the elderly to die," Ms. Smith said.

The state argued that the decision on assisted suicide should be left to the Legislature.

"But where a constitutional right is involved, this court simply may not abdicate its responsibility to face the issue, no matter how difficult or divisive," Judge Rothstein countered.

Judge Rothstein also took issue with the "slippery-slope" argument underlying the state's claim that allowing some suicides would encourage gradual acceptance of the practice.

The Rev. Ralph Mero, executive director of Compassion in Dying, a suicide-assistance group that also was a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said his organization would not encourage patients to come to Washington for the purpose of getting help in suicide.

"We want physicians to step forward in other states, as they did in Washington, to effect decisions on their own," he said.

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