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Physician-Assisted Suicide

As terminal illnesses affect America’s aging population and technology levels increase, some states have enacted legislation either permitting or disallowing physician-assisted suicide.

Those who oppose physician-assisted suicide argue that helping a patient commit suicide contravenes the physician’s core purpose of healing They also assert that although the right would initially only apply to terminally ill patients, allowing physician-assisted suicide would eventually lead to patients with lesser illnesses and to patients who are unable to understand the consequences of their actions asserting a right to die. Opponents of physician-assisted suicide also argue that the states have a valid interest in protecting their resident patients and that states should, therefore, be allowed to ban physician-assisted suicide.

New York and Maryland, for instance, enacted legislation banning physician-assisted suicide. Three doctors from New York sued the state, arguing that their terminally ill patients had the right to seek assistance to kill themselves. The doctors asserted that this right was substantially the same as the right other patients had to refuse life-saving treatment. The United States Supreme Court determined that there was a rational distinction between patients who sought physician-assisted suicide and patients who refused life-saving treatment. For that reason, the Court held that New York’s ban on physician-assisted suicide was constitutional, leaving the decision of whether to permit physician-assisted suicide in the hands of the states.

While New York banned physician-assisted suicide, Oregon enacted legislation expressly permitting it under controlled circumstances. The Oregon Death with Dignity Act, O.R.S. § 127.805 et seq., allows competent patients to request that a physician prescribe levels of medication sufficient to end their lives. Controls are placed on the patient’s decision, requiring the patient to be competent and to be an Oregon resident, requiring both the attending physician and a consulting physician to agree that the illness is terminal in nature, and imposing a waiting period before the prescription may be written.

Because the legality of physician-assisted suicide is controlled by the individual states, individuals interested in physician-assisted suicide must consult state law to determine whether it is allowed in their state.

Copyright 2012 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.