Amicus Curiae Brief for the United States Supreme Court on Mental Health Issues Associated with "Physician-Assisted Suicide". (Practice & Theory)

Article excerpt

Many scholars have stated that the controversy over the acceptability of hastened death (alternately, and more narrowly, called "physician-assisted suicide" or "physician aid-in-dying") is, and will continue to be, the most important and pressing social issue in the country as the new century begins (e.g., Battin, 1994; McIntosh, 1993). On January 8, 1997, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments related to appeals of two circuit court decisions (Vacco v. Quill [95-1858] and Washington v. Glucksberg [96-110]), which independently declared that laws prohibiting physician aid-in-dying were unconstitutional. The Court's decisions were released on June 26, 1997.

In late 1996, amicus curiae ("friend of the Court") briefs for the two cases going before the Supreme Court were filed by a large number of individuals and organizations. The American Psychiatric Association signed onto a brief with, among others, the American Medical Association, opposing physician-assisted suicide and urging the Supreme Court to overturn the two circuit court decisions (Brief for the American Medical Association et al., 1996). On the other hand, a brief was filed by a group of mental health organizations and professionals supporting the circuit courts (Brief for the Washington State Psychological Association et al., 1996--printed at the end of this article). This latter brief was signed by the Washington State Psychological Association (WSPA); the American Counseling Association (ACA); the Association for Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Issues in Counseling (AGLBIC); and a Coalition of Mental Health Professionals Supporting Individual Self-Determination in Decisions to Hasten Death (which included 25 psychologists, 13 psychiatrists, 9 social workers, and 4 professional counselors. A list of names can be obtained by contacting the first author.)

One of the primary reasons that the brief was filed was that although nonpsychiatric mental health professionals are not directly involved in providing aid-in-dying, because of their inability to prescribe medications, it was clear to several individuals and organizations that the involvement of such professionals could alleviate many of the concerns associated with aid-in-dying. In other words, it was believed that mental health workers could play a valuable role in protecting the suffering person, the person's significant others, and society as a whole from the potential problems associated with aid-in-dying. Furthermore, a review led to the belief that appropriate mental health literature associated with aid-in-dying had been ignored, misinterpreted, or disavowed.

THE PROCESS OF WRITING THE BRIEF

To meet the requirements for filing briefs at the Supreme Court, the document had to be submitted in early December 1996. However, preliminary writing and searches for potential signers began in August 1996. Basing much of the material on the sole book devoted to the subject of mental health issues and hastened death (Werth, 1996) and subsequent research reports, we provided draft materials to three pro bono attorneys who framed the material so that it addressed the questions before the Supreme Court. As the attorneys worked on the legal document, we used personal and professional networks to identify mental health workers to form a coalition of prominent and qualified professionals. The coalition was made up of 51 professionals from four mental health fields who read the brief and supported its contents. Although it was called a "coalition," the "members" were actually individual professionals who had experience with end-of-life issues and who agreed to sign the brief--no formal organization was created and the signers did not have contact with one another, although they did provide feedback to us.

In addition, professional organizations--including the American Psychological Association, National Association of Social Workers (NASW), ACA, AGLBIC, and WSPA--were contacted and asked to join the brief. …