A Washington state law barring doctors from helping terminally ill patients to die was upheld Thursday by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The law protects the poor and handicapped and prevents doctors from becoming “killers of their patients,” ruled a three-judge panel of the court.
The court overturned a May 1994 ruling by U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein, who had declared the law unconstitutional.
The claim of a right to physicianassisted suicide has no basis in the “traditions of our nation” and is “antithetical to the defense of human life that has been a chief responsibility of our constitutional government,” the 9th Circuit panel said.
The dissenting judge in the 2-1 decision said the law violates “the right to die with dignity (in accord with) the American values of selfdetermination and privacy regarding personal decisions.”
Washington’s law, part of a ban on promoting or assisting suicide first enacted by the state’s territorial government in 1854, was challenged by three terminally ill patients, now deceased; a group of doctors who treat the terminally ill; and a group called Compassion in Dying, which offers assistance in dying to terminally ill people.
There was no immediate comment from plaintiffs’ attorney Kathryn Tucker.
But a representative of Compassion in Dying said an appeal is planned.
“We’re very disappointed in the decision … and we feel that it again demonstrates this court’s lack of concern and compassion for the terminally ill who are suffering from intractable pain,” said John Lee, vice president of the group’s board.
“We feel it totally disregards the right of dying individuals to make end-of-life decisions,” Lee said.
“We are now preparing to take this to the next level and ultimately to the Supreme Court.”
Compassion in Dying, founded in April 1993, will continue its work on behalf of the terminally ill, Lee said. He declined to say how many people had been assisted, but said the group had worked with hundreds of patients, their families and physicians.
Thursday’s ruling was the first by a federal appeals court on the validity of a law barring assisted suicide an issue that gained increased prominence with Michigan’s prosecution of Dr. Jack Kevorkian and Oregon voters’ passage of a right-to-die law.
The Michigan Supreme Court upheld a law similar to Washington’s in December.
Oregon’s law, the first to grant the terminally ill a right to physician assistance in dying, was blocked last December by a federal judge in a ruling bound for the 9th Circuit.
Thursday’s ruling did not appear to prohibit a law like Oregon’s, said William L. Williams, an assistant Washington attorney general who defended Washington’s law before Rothstein.
The court concluded that “states have some discretion in making legislative policy choices in this area,” Williams said.
Washington voters narrowly rejected an initiative like Oregon’s in 1991, he said, noting that “too was a legitimate policy choice and had it been adopted we would have defended it.”
Chicago-based Americans United for Life, representing a group of Washington legislators, said the ruling continued a trend of similar decisions here and abroad.
“What would be helpful … is if people stopped looking at the law as a solution to a medical problem (and worked) to get the medical community to recognize and treat effectively depression and pain,” said Paul Linton, a lawyer for the group.
Rothstein ruled that the law was unconstitutional as applied to terminally ill, mentally competent patients who sought physician assistance in dying.
The appeals court opinion was written by Judge John Noonan, a prominent anti-abortion legal theoretician and Catholic scholar before his appointment to the bench by President Reagan in 1986.
Rothstein ignored “the differences between the regulation of reproduction and the prevention of the promotion of killing a patient at his or her request,” wrote Noonan, joined by Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain.
He said any “alleged liberty of suicide” was outweighed by numerous legitimate interests of the state:
“in not having physicians in the role of killers of their patients.
“in not subjecting the elderly and … infirm to psychological pressure to consent to their own deaths.
“in protecting the poor and minorities from exploitation,” since those groups are “notoriously less provided for in the alleviation of pain.”
“in protecting all of the handicapped from societal indifference and antipathy.”