Handbook for Mortals : Hastening Death : Is physician-assisted suicide legal?

Physician-assisted suicide is illegal in every state except Oregon. In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court issued rulings on physician-assisted suicide and sent the issue back to the states to decide. The Court decided that it could not identify a right to request a physician’s help in dying. Therefore, the merits of state laws that bar physician-assisted suicide are appropriate for the states to decide.

At the same time, the Court reaffirmed that Americans do have the right to refuse or end life-sustaining treatment, such as ventilators and feeding tubes. The Court pointed out that there is a difference between letting someone die and helping someone to die. Refusing treatment lets your disease run its natural course. Having someone’s help in suicide, the court ruled, is different.

The Court also emphasized the importance of pain control for dying people. The court’s ruling may well have created a right to pain and symptom management — at least keeping the states from erecting barriers. Many doctors are hesitant to prescribe opioids (also called narcotics) because they fear the state will revoke their license or their prescribing privileges. The court's ruling will probably weaken this concern.

In reality, should you try to hoard pills to overdose, you are not likely to be prosecuted. And certainly talking about suicide is not against the law. Unless you live in Oregon (where physician-assisted suicide is legal), any action taken by a doctor — deliberately prescribing pills, giving a lethal injection, or even being present at your suicide — is illegal in the United States.

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Keywords: pain law, legal, legality, law suits, lawsuits, sue
Handbook for Mortals book cover Copyright © 1999, 2006 by Joanne Lynn. This extract from the Handbook for Mortals by Joanne Lynn, M.D. and Joan Harrold, M.D. is used with permission. To learn more about improving care at the end of life visit the main web site for Americans for Better Care of the Dying.
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