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Is Assisting With Suicide a Crime?

There are many reasons why someone would want to end their life. These reasons range from severe depression to terminal illness. Suicide is the twelfth leading cause of death in the United States. While there are treatment options available for people with depression, what are the options for those who aren't expected to live much longer or are suffering extraordinary pain?

If a loved one decides they want to end their life because of a terminal disease, is assisting with their suicide a crime? If you're not a licensed physician, then assisting someone with suicide is most definitely a crime. However, some states have enacted "right to die" or "death with dignity" laws. In these states, eligible patients may self-administer a lethal dose of medication to end their life.

It is important to note the difference between physician-assisted suicide (PAS) and euthanasia, otherwise known as mercy killing. Euthanasia involves the primary participation of a third party. In contrast, assisted suicide requires that the patient is the primary agent when committing suicide.

This article lays out the legal safeguards for assisted suicide, including what it means to assist someone with ending their life. It also looks at the policy reasons for its prohibition in most jurisdictions.

What Is Assisted Suicide?

Every state has a different definition of assisted suicide. Some states do not actually define it in their state laws. Generally, someone assists with suicide when they:

  • Do some act that causes someone else to die, such as administering a lethal dose of a drug
  • Provide the drugs or tools necessary for someone else to commit suicide
  • Advise someone else on the way to commit suicide
  • Persuade someone else to commit suicide

The failure to provide medical treatment to someone who is already dying is not considered assisted suicide. Individuals who do not wish to be kept alive through life-sustaining treatments may state their end-of-life wishes in an advance directive. The patient's wishes will then be provided to their consulting physician, health care providers, and caregivers.

History of Assisted Suicide Laws

Advocacy for the legalization of assisted suicide began in the 1980s with the Hemlock Society. Then, in 1991, “aid in dying" legislation was proposed in Oregon. In 1994, Oregon voters legalized physician-assisted suicide through the Oregon Death with Dignity Act.

In 1997, the Supreme Court rules in Washington v. Glucksberg that there is no constitutional right to assisted suicide. Specifically, the Court decision held that Washington and New York state bans on physician-assisted suicide did not violate the Constitution. Despite the Court ruling, states can still decide to uphold their own assisted suicide laws.

In 2013, Vermont passed the Patient Choice and Control End of Life Act. This Act governs the prescribing of medication to hasten the end of terminally ill patients' lives.

In 2015, California signed the End-of-Life Option Act into law. The Act allows terminally ill patients to request and self-administer aid-in-dying drugs from their attending physician.

In 2016, Colorado passed Proposition 106. The Proposition is also known as the Colorado Physician-Assisted Death Initiative. Colorado designed the Initiative to allow healthcare professionals to opt out of offering medical aid in dying. As a result, up to one-third of Colorado hospitals decided to not offer medical aid in dying.

Assisted suicide is now legal in ten jurisdictions in the United States:

  • Washington D.C.
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Oregon
  • Vermont
  • New Mexico
  • Maine
  • New Jersey
  • Hawaii
  • Washington
  • Montana (disputed)

Arguments for and Against Assisted Suicide

There are two major public policy reasons why assisting with suicide is a crime in most states. First, many states consider the preservation of life the highest priority. In those states, anything that ends a human life is a crime, such as murder or manslaughter. Although the U.S. Supreme Court reached a similar conclusion, states are free to enact their own assisted suicide laws.

The second policy reason against assisted suicide is that it can be difficult to distinguish it from murder. States have an interest in ensuring that no one is forced to commit suicide through threats or deception. For this reason, the few states that currently allow physician-assisted suicide (including WashingtonOregon, and Colorado) have strict requirements and procedures that must be followed:

  • The patient must be a resident of the state
  • The patient is evaluated by a mental health specialist
  • The patient is a terminally ill adult
  • The patient's death is imminent (most states require death within six months)
  • The patient's request was voluntary and made both orally and via a written request on many occasions
  • The patient must go through a waiting period before and after giving verbal and written confirmation
  • The patient is given multiple opportunities to change their mind

Proponents of medical aid in dying and physician-assisted suicide emphasize the patient's right to self-determination in end-of-life decision-making. In contrast, opponents of aid-in-dying laws argue that these laws will negatively affect older people, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups, despite the protections and safeguards in place. Moreover, the American Medical Association opposes physician-assisted death and has stated that “physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally inconsistent with the physician's role as healer."

Get Professional Legal Help With Your End-of-Life Concerns

While assisting with suicide is a crime in most states, the list of states allowing physician-assisted suicide continues to grow. But if a family member or loved one with a terminal illness doesn't want to be kept alive through artificial means, they have that choice. Regardless, be sure to consult with a health care law attorney if you have any more questions about end-of-life care.

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