Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor temporarily stopped doctors in Washington state Wednesday from helping any terminally ill patients end their lives by suicide.
In a brief order, O’Connor blocked a federal appeals court ruling from taking effect Wednesday night. Without the justice’s action, the lower court’s decision would have immediately nullified a Washington state law that makes “assisted suicide” a crime.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled in May, by an 8-3 vote, that patients who are so ill that they will not recover have a constitutional right, if they are mentally competent, “to hasten their own deaths” with the aid of a doctor.
As a result of that ruling, doctors in the state gained the option of prescribing life-ending medication that the patients themselves would take to end their lives whenever they chose.
While the appeals court acted weeks ago, it had not put its ruling into effect, because it was considering a plea by the state of Washington that it reconsider. On Wednesday, the appeals court refused to reconsider and announced that its ruling would now take effect.
Washington is preparing to appeal that ruling to the Supreme Court, within the next month. In the meantime, it asked O’Connor to postpone the lower-court ruling. She did that without comment, giving the challengers to the state law until June 5 to reply.