Assisted Suicide Laws at Stake in New Jersey and Minnesota Foreshadow Danger for Vulnerable Populations in Other States

By Jennifer Popik, JD, Robert Powell Center for Medical Ethics

William Melchert-Dinkel

William Melchert-Dinkel

On the euthanasia front, legalization of assisting suicide is under consideration in New Jersey, while the Minnesota Supreme Court is set to hear an important related case.

In New Jersey, the so-called “Death With Dignity Act,” A3328, has been voted out of committee and awaits floor consideration. Along with its companion Senate Bill, S2259, it could be considered by the legislature at any time until the end of the year.

Minnesota is facing a different problem. In Minnesota, the “Final Exit Network” has been in legal trouble because of its roll in several suicides. The Final Exit Network is a network of volunteer activists that assist in people’s suicides using counseling, guidance, and information on suicide techniques.

These activists “counsel” non-terminally ill as well as sick patients. They also conduct research into new suicide methods. While they claim not to physically assist, they have sometimes been alleged to do so.

They have faced numerous criminal and civil charges in states. Currently, they are fighting criminal convictions under Minnesota law stemming from the suicide of 57-year-old Doreen Dunn, who used their helium and plastic bag method. She had been living with coronary artery disease.

Minnesota has a very strong law against assisting suicide. In Minnesota, not only it is a crime to assist in a suicide, but it is also illegal to “advise or encourage” a suicide. After several cases and appeals, Minnesota’s intermediate appellate court–the Court of Appeals–found that the Minnesota statue violated Final Exit Network members’ first amendment right to express themselves.

However, the Court of Appeals’ decision in the Final Exit Network case is arguably inconsistent with a decision of the same court made only last year. William Francis Melchert-Dinkel was convicted of “advising” or “encouraging” a suicide under the same statute. In that case, the Court of Appeals found the statute facially constitutional. Appeals in both cases are now pending before the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Regardless of their outcome, it will still remain a criminal act to physically assist in a suicide in Minnesota.

Although eyes are on Minnesota and New Jersey, there is a larger picture. Although assisting suicide is now legal only in areas where a small fraction of the world’s population resides, advocates are focused on promoting its spread. In the United States, doctor-prescribed suicide is legal in only Oregon, Washington, and Vermont–and may have some legal protection in the state of Montana, due to a court decision.

In our country, Compassion and Choices (formerly the Hemlock Society) is primarily responsible for promoting the legalization of doctor-prescribed death. Essentially, the organization goes state by state promoting legislation similar to the law in effect in the state of Oregon for the past 15 years, providing that a “terminally ill” person can be given a lethal prescription.

Since people who could live indefinitely if provided life-preserving treatment but who would die without it, could be deemed to fit the definition of “terminally ill.” This could result in authorizing the killing of many whose death is not inevitably imminent.

Although advocates of these laws claim to merely be providing another option to a person with a tough diagnosis, the laws are riddled with legal problems, and their so-called safeguards ultimately do not protect vulnerable groups including those suffering from mental illness, the elderly, and persons with disabilities. (More on how so-called safeguards do not work can be found here.)

In a 1997 victory, the United States Supreme Court unanimously rejected the notion that there is a constitutional “right” to assisted suicide. Unfortunately, concurring opinions from a number of the Justices suggested that they would be open to reconsideration – especially if a number of states legalized it and abuses were not documented to occur.

For example, Justice John Paul Stevens, since retired, wrote that the Court’s decision did not “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.”

It is important that if you live in New Jersey that you contact your state legislators – and let your legislators know you do not want your state to be next. Most legislators have never dealt with this issue and they need to be educated about why loosening the protections against doctor-prescribed suicide gravely endangers vulnerable people with disabilities.