March 7, 1996 in Nation/World

Court Backs Right-To-Die Proponents Federal Judges Reject Washington State Ban On Assisted Suicide

Craig Welch Jeanette White And The A Staff writer
 

A federal appeals court struck down Washington state’s ban on doctor-assisted suicide Wednesday, reinvigorating the debate across the border in Idaho.

Declaring a constitutional “right to die,” the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Washington’s ban violates the rights of terminally ill, mentally competent adults who want to hasten their deaths with drugs prescribed by doctors.

It’s unclear what impact the 8-3 decision will have in Idaho, where state law doesn’t specifically address assisted suicide. But there was no shortage of opinions on the issue.

“I don’t see how they (the court) could have gone any other way,” said John Nugent, executive director of Hospice in Coeur d’Alene.

“I have some real problems with the court allowing euthanasia,” said Pastor Roger LaChance, at St. Pius Catholic Church.

Wednesday’s decision marks the first time a federal appeals court has ruled on the issue.

The opinion by Judge Stephen Reinhardt said, “A competent, terminally ill adult, having lived nearly the full measure of his life, has a strong liberty interest in choosing a dignified and humane death rather than being reduced at the end of his existence to a childlike state of helplessness, diapered, sedated, incompetent.”

Nugent, at Hospice, has had patients ask for help with suicide. He finds it inconsistent that assisting them is against the law.

The existence of “a constitutionally recognized right to die” was signaled by past Supreme Court rulings, including a 1990 ruling that allowed patients to terminate unwanted medical treatment, Nugent said.

“What we’re talking about is a physician prescribing medication that a terminally ill patient can take or not take,” said Nugent. “It does not allow them (physicians) to actually give drugs or administer medication - to be the ‘agent of death.’ That’s murder.”

LaChance at St. Pius argued that striking down the ban opens “a Pandora’s box” and encourages suicide.

“Part of the human condition is it’s not always rosy,” he said. “There’s also a thorny side of life. But we live in a society that wants to flee from all pain and suffering.”

Others argued there’s a difference between doctors honoring a patient’s demand to halt life-saving treatment - such as kidney dialysis - and a doctor prescribing intentionally deadly medication.

“Ethically, many doctors just can’t deal with that kind of decision,” said Carmen Brochu, vice president for patient services at Kootenai Medical Center.

KMC ethicists instead debate whether to fight suffering for terminally ill patients with pain-killing drugs that have the potential to result in death.

“We may choose to medicate, but that’s it,” she said.

The Washington attorney general’s office will study Wednesday’s decision for several days before deciding whether to appeal to the Supreme Court.

Dr. William Fox, who serves on an ethics committee for Kootenai Medical Center, said that without an appeal, terminally ill Idaho residents may rush to Spokane for assisted suicides “like people who come over here to avoid sales taxes.”

Nugent said some Idahoans already have contacted Rob Neils, a Spokane grief counselor, who has provided “guidance and presence” for some terminally ill people who killed themselves.

“It’s just incredibly good news that we have the court system behind us in what we’re doing in a compassionate manner,” Neils said Wednesday.

Coeur d’Alene’s Dr. Dick McLandress, however, said he doubted Idaho would see any impact.

The Washington law was part of a ban on promoting or assisting suicide first enacted by Washington’s territorial government in 1854.

It was challenged by three terminally ill patients, now deceased; a group of doctors who treat the terminally ill; and Compassion in Dying, a Seattle-based group that helps patients who want to hasten their deaths.

U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein ruled the law unconstitutional in May 1994. She was overruled last March by a three-judge panel of the appeals court, which ruled 2-1 that the ban was valid. The majority said the law protects the poor, handicapped and elderly and prevents doctors from becoming “killers of their patients.”

But a majority of the entire court voted last August to refer the case to an 11-judge panel for a new hearing, setting the stage for today’s ruling.

Although the ruling affects only the nine Western states covered by the appeals court, a lawyer for Dr. Jack Kevorkian said he would cite the case Thursday in seeking dismissal of assisted-suicide charges against Kevorkian in Oakland County, Mich.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Craig Welch Staff writer Staff writer Jeanette White and The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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