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Doctor-assisted suicides turned homicide charges?

Montana recently introduced legislation that could charge physicians with homicide, who assist their patients in suicide.

“My ultimate aim is to make euthanasia a positive experience.”  These are the words of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the well-known pathologist who helped dozens of terminally ill patients end their lives.  While Kevorkian spent eight years behind bars after being convicted of second-degree murder, he never wavered in his pursuit to help people end their lives.

Physician-assisted suicide has been a controversial topic for well over a decade.  While some doctors believe they are helping their patients by assisting in suicide, opponents of this practice believe that if it is left unchecked, doctor-assisted suicide will become an easy way to be rid of the elderly and mentally handicapped.

“Baxter wanted to self-administer a lethal dose of drugs prescribed to him by his doctor that would end his life.” 

While each state has its own laws and regulations surrounding end of life care, Montana recently stepped into the spotlight after introducing HB 536.  This bill would allow doctors to be indicted on homicide charges for engaging in physician-assisted suicides.  The proposed legislation states that physician-assisted suicide is “against public policy” and that “a patient’s consent to physician aid in dying is not a defense to a charge of homicide against the aiding physician.”

This legislation runs contrary to current Montana law which allows “death with dignity” in certain terminal situations.  Robert Baxter, a retired truck driver, was diagnosed with terminal lymphocytic leukemia.  Baxter wanted to self-administer a lethal dose of drugs prescribed to him by his doctor that would end his life.  Montana’s Supreme Court ruled in 2009 in Baxter v. Montana, that nothing in Montana’s statutes indicated that physician-assisted suicides were against public policy, and that Montana statutes shielded physicians, who assisted patients in ending their lives, from criminal prosecution.

Who has the right to tell me that I don’t deserve this choice?”

Although Baxter v. Montana was an influential case, the seminal case that brought national attention to this topic was the story of Brittany Maynard.  Maynard was only 29 years old when she was given six months to live due to terminal brain cancer.  She had been married for just over a year, and she and her husband were in the process of starting a family.  Maynard uprooted her family from her home in California and moved to Oregon, which had more favorable “death with dignity” laws.

Before her death, Maynard traveled with her family and used her situation to become an advocate for the implementation of “death with dignity” laws in every state.  In an interview with CNN, Maynard expressed her views on her right to die.  “Who has the right to tell me that I don’t deserve this choice?  That I deserve to suffer for weeks or months in tremendous amounts of physical and emotional pain?  Why should anyone have the right to make that choice for me?”  Maynard passed away on November 1, 2014 in her upstairs bedroom with her mother, stepfather, husband, and best friend by her side.

“Physician-assisted suicide raises a host of legal and ethical issues.”

Currently, only five states have “death with dignity” laws on their books—California, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and Colorado.  While Montana has not enacted a statute that protects physician-assisted suicide, since the holding in Baxter, lawmakers in Montana have introduced several bills either in favor of, or in opposition to, physician-assisted suicide.

Physician-assisted suicide raises a host of legal and ethical issues.  Two of the most prominent are: 1) Protection under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection Clause, and 2) The ethical duty of the physician who assists in the suicide.

In regards to the first issue, section one of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the government from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.  Proponents of physician-assisted suicide argue that the right of a person to obtain a life-ending prescription from his doctor and subsequently take his own life, is an absolute right that cannot be taken away by the government.  Opponents argue that the right to individual autonomy has its limits.  These individuals believe that while a person may have a certain amount of autonomy, the sanctity of human life trumps individual autonomy when it comes to taking one’s own life.

“…a doctor should be aware that exercising compassion in ending a life may outweigh the use of medical treatment.”

Secondly, all licensed physicians take the Hippocratic Oath—this oath is similar to the “swearing in” process that lawyers go through.  The modern version of the Oath requires that doctors promise to exercise warmth, sympathy, understanding and must know that these attributes “may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.”  In other words, the modern version of the Hippocratic Oath accounts for the idea that in some situations, a doctor should be aware that exercising compassion in ending a life may outweigh the use of medical treatment.

Opponents of physician-assisted suicide disagree with this modern version of the Hippocratic Oath.  They believe the original version of the Oath that states “ I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect…” should control.

Further, there is a public policy argument to be made.  Patrick Lee, the Chair in Bioethics at Franciscan University believes that although physicians must not always take steps to preserve a life, they should never assist in the intentional killing of a person.  To Lee, this would send a message to the sick, elderly and disabled that their lives are not valuable.  In essence, Lee believes that allowing physician-assisted suicide would lead the medical field down a slippery slope in which it would become easy to end the lives of those who are incompetent, depressed or too young to make a decision.

Many states argue public policy issues in their pursuit against physician-assisted suicide, while proponents argue that hindering someone’s right to die infringes on their human rights. 

Although the concept of physician-assisted suicide has made progress in recent years, its proponents still face obstacles.  In November 2016, the District of Columbia sought to pass its own version of the “death with dignity” law.  Although this legislation was blocked by the U.S. House of Representative’s Oversight Committee just months earlier, Council of the District of Columbia passed the bill in an 11-2 vote.  This victory was short-lived.  In February of this year, Congress overturned the bill due in part, to a fear that physician-assisted suicide “will create a marketplace for death.”

Physician-assisted suicide remains a highly controversial issue.  This is evidenced by the fact that only five states have adopted legislation in favor of a person’s right to die.  Many states argue public policy issues in their pursuit against physician-assisted suicide, while proponents argue that hindering someone’s right to die infringes on their human rights.  Both these arguments are valid and perhaps this is the reason there has been gridlock over this issue in the legislative process.

Kendra Alleyne, Associate Editor
About Kendra Alleyne, Associate Editor (17 Articles)
Kendra Alleyne is a third year law student and serves as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer. She is from Lynchburg, Virginia and graduated from Liberty University for a degree in Broadcast Journalism. Over the summer following her first year of law school, Kendra worked as a legal internship at Colon & Associates, where she is currently still interning. Kendra also serves as the Public Relations Chair for Campbell University’s Black Law Student Association.
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