The Right to Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia

By Gorsuch, Neil M. | Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

The Right to Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia


Gorsuch, Neil M., Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy


I. INTRODUCTION

Whether to permit assisted suicide and euthanasia is among the most contentious legal and public policy questions in America today. The American public consciousness became galvanized on June 4, 1990, with the news that Dr. Jack Kevorkian had helped Janet Adkins, a fifty-four-year-old Alzheimer's patient, take her life.(1) It was later disclosed that Dr. Kevorkian had neither taken the medical history nor made an examination of Ms. Adkins, and that he had never consulted Ms. Adkins's primary care physician.(2) Dr. Kevorkian had simply agreed to meet Ms. Adkins in a Volkswagen van he had outfitted with a "suicide machine" consisting of three chemical solutions fed into an intravenous line needle. It took Dr. Kevorkian several attempts to insert the needle into Ms. Adkins, but he eventually succeeded.(3) Ms. Adkins then pressed a lever releasing lethal drugs into her body.

While the media often uses the term "assisted suicide" to describe Dr. Kevorkian's practices, it is a misnomer. Dr. Kevorkian seeks to legalize not only the practice of aiding another in taking his or her life (assisting suicide), but also the practice of intentionally killing another person motivated by feelings of compassion or mercy (euthanasia). Indeed, in 1999 Dr. Kevorkian performed an act of euthanasia for a nationwide television audience on 60 Minutes, with the express desire of provoking debate over legalizing that practice too. (He was later convicted of second-degree murder after a trial in which he chose to act as his own counsel).(4)

Since Ms. Adkins's death made national headlines, Dr. Kevorkian claims to have assisted more than 130 suicides.(5) While Dr. Kevorkian is perhaps the most notorious proponent of assisted suicide and euthanasia, he is hardly without allies. Derek Humphry, founder of The Hemlock Society, a group devoted to promoting the legalization of euthanasia, has praised Dr. Kevorkian for "breaking the medical taboo on euthanasia."(6) The American Civil Liberties Union has taken up his legal defense.(7)

In 1984, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to give legal sanction to some forms of assisting suicide and euthanasia. The Dutch Supreme Court declared that although killing a patient remains a criminally punishable offense under the nation's Penal Code, physicians can claim an "emergency defense" under certain circumstances.(8)

In a 1991 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Timothy Quill, a University of Rochester professor, defended his decision to prescribe barbiturates to a cancer patient even though she admitted that she might use them at some indefinite time in the future to kill herself.(9) A New York grand jury was convened but declined to bring an indictment for assisting suicide. The State's Board for Professional Medical Misconduct considered pressing disciplinary charges but declined, reasoning that Dr. Quill had written a prescription for drugs that had a legitimate medical use for his patient (as a sleeping aid for her insomnia) and that he could not have definitively known she would use the medication to kill herself. Ruling, in essence, that the evidence was too equivocal to conclude that Dr. Quill intended to cause the death of his patient, charges were dropped.(10)

In 1992, a gynecology resident submitted an anonymous article to the Journal of the American Medical Association that sparked a long-running debate in the most prominent American medical journals. Entitled It's Over Debbie, the article described how the author administered a lethal injection to a terminal cancer patient (an act of euthanasia, not assisted suicide) that he had never met before after her demand to "get this over with."(11)

After its publication in the early 1990s, The Hemlock Society's book, Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying,(12) rocketed to the New York Times' best-seller list. …

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