Declaring a constitutional “right to die,” a federal appeals court on Tuesday struck down Washington state’s ban on doctor-assisted suicide.
In an 8-3 decision, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Washington law violates the rights of terminally ill adults who want to hasten their deaths with drugs prescribed by doctors.
Praise came from civil libertarians and AIDS organizations and criticism from the American Medical Association and the Catholic Church.
The decision pushes aside legal threats against terminally ill, mentally competent people who want to hasten their deaths, said the president of a Spokane group called Dying Well Network.
“It’s just incredibly good news that we have the court system behind us in what we’re doing in a compassionate manner,” said psychologist Rob Neils of Spokane.
But a hospital ethicist worried the ruling will promote assisted suicide.
“I am very concerned about the vulnerable citizens in our society, that they’ll feel assisted suicide has to be used as an option,” said Johnny Cox of Sacred Heart Medical Center.
The Washington attorney general’s office will study the decision for several days before deciding whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, said Solicitor General Narda Pierce.
Wednesday’s decision, announced in San Francisco, 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.”
While the preservation of life is a legitimate function of the state, Reinhardt said, “When patients are no longer able to pursue liberty or happiness and do not wish to pursue life, the state’s interest in forcing them to remain alive is less compelling.”
He also said the court disagreed with a ruling by a federal judge in Oregon overturning the nation’s first law, passed by state voters in November 1994, that established a terminally ill patient’s right to physician assistance in dying.
That law was not before the court in Tuesday’s case, but is likely to be upheld if the Washington ruling stands.
Although the ruling affects only the nine Western states covered by the 9th Circuit court, including Idaho, a lawyer for Dr. Jack Kevorkian said he would cite the case today in seeking dismissal of assisted-suicide charges against Kevorkian in Oakland County, Mich.
“Jack Kevorkian is being tried under a law that violated the United States Constitution,” said attorney Geoffrey Fieger. Kevorkian unsuccessfully challenged the Michigan law - similar to Washington’s - in state courts.
Reinhardt said 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.
Separate dissents were filed by Judges Robert Beezer, Ferdinand Fernandez and Andrew Kleinfeld. They reached varying conclusions on whether a constitutional right to commit suicide exists, but agreed that any such right was outweighed by the state’s interests in preserving life, preventing suicide and protecting the integrity of the medical profession.
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 Tuesday’s ruling.
Neils, a Spokane grief counselor, said the decision opens doors for his 2-year-old group, which has provided “guidance and presence” for terminally ill people who killed themselves.
But people involved in such deaths always struggle with stress and fear of criminal prosecution, Neils said.
“It’s been incredibly difficult for our Dying Well group, because when we’re with a deathing, it could be interpreted to be illegal,” he said.
The Rev. Bob Stevenson, another Dying Well member, called the ruling a victory for human dignity.
“It’s really wonderful that families are going to be able to walk through (death) they way they want to walk through it without having the long arm of the law hovering over the death bed of loved ones.”
, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Staff and wire reports Staff writer Jeanette White contributed to this report.