By Jennifer Popik, JD., Robert Powell Center for Medical Ethics
On Friday, the Maine House of Representatives overwhelmingly rejected the bill to allow doctor-prescribed suicide by a vote 95-43.
The vote is in stark contrast to what happened in Vermont where two weeks ago Governor Peter Shumlin signed a doctor-prescribed suicide bill into law.
The bill, titled “An Act Regarding Patient-Directed Care at the End of Life,” went far beyond helping patients make choices surrounding their end of life care and would have granted immunity to physicians who assisted in a patient’s suicide.
Assisted suicide poses enormous danger for various reasons –risks to the mentally ill, persons with disabilities, and the elderly to name a few– and is currently outlawed in the state of Maine as well as most states. To see the law in your state, click here.
Although doctor-prescribed suicide is only legal for a small fraction of the world’s population, advocates were in high gear promoting this dangerous legislation in several states this legislative session. Currently, doctor-prescribed suicide is legal in only three states–Oregon, Washington, and Vermont–and may have some legal protection in the state of Montana, due to a court decision.
The doctor-prescribed advocacy groups, Compassion & Choices and the Death with Dignity National Center, targeted several states this legislative session including Vermont, New Jersey, Connecticut, Montana, and Maine. Assisted suicide proponents, after a decade-long fight, did prevail in the state of Vermont, making it only the third state to legalize the practice.
By contrast Maine now joins Connecticut and Montana who have defeated their session bills that would have allowed assisted suicide bills. However, the fight is heating up in New Jersey. More on this can be found at “Assisting Suicide promoted in large number of states.”)
The assisted suicide lobby promotes essentially the same language that governs both Oregon and Washington. The language, developed initially for Oregon, purports to “safeguard” the practice and restrict it to the terminally ill and the competent.
Beyond states being vulnerable to the argument that “these assisted suicide laws work,” there is also a larger legal concern. In a 1997 pro-life victory, the United States Supreme Court in Washington v. Glucksberg, unanimously rejected the notion that there was a constitutional “right” to assist suicide.
However, there was one troubling footnote from Justice John Paul Stevens. Stevens said that he did not intend to “foreclose the possibility that an individual plaintiff seeking to hasten her death, or a doctor whose assistance was sought, could prevail in a more particularized challenge.”
In addition to this open-ended invitation to bring a case in the future, the High Court has also indicated that it likes to look at trends. In the 2005 Roper v. Simmons case (an unrelated juvenile death penalty case), the Court wrote, “It is not so much the number of these States that is significant, but the consistency of the direction of the change.”
So while you might not live in one of the states where doctor prescribed suicide is legal, if New Jersey and others were to join the ranks of Oregon, Washington, and Vermont, there is the real risk that the practice would spread to yet more states.
Moreover, faced with a growing number of states legalizing active euthanasia, the Supreme Court might well reconsider whether there is a federal Constitutional right to assist suicide.
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