Elder Law

Assisted Suicide: Each State Has Its Own Laws

Each state makes its own decisions and laws regarding assisted suicide. Occasionally, the U.S. Supreme Court gets involved when a particular case reaches it on appeal. In almost every state, assisted suicide is a criminal offense. The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to force states to change these laws.

Declining Life Support Is OK

In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that terminally ill adults, regardless of their age, have the right to decline life-saving measures. The court ruled that when a patient refuses life support or health care, the disease ends the patient's life, not any deliberate life-ending action. If you're competent, you can legally refuse life-sustaining treatment. In most states, suicide itself (as opposed to assisted suicide) is not a crime, so the law can't hold anyone liable if you choose to end your life on your own.

Asking for Assistance May Cause Liability

A problem arises when you ask a loved one or a physician to help you end your life. In most states, law enforcement can charge the person who helps you with a felony. However, some state courts have ruled around this issue. Montana's Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that someone else can provide you with the means to die, as long as they don't actually take any other action to end your life. You would have to personally make use of the means without assistance. For example, your physician can prescribe a life-ending drug. If the physician doesn't actually inject the drug for you, the physician can't be charged with a crime. In this case, you've legally given your consent.

Some States Allow Help

In addition to Montana, three other states allow some form of assisted suicide. The Georgia Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that assisted suicide is not a felony, as long as the assistance doesn't come from anyone who literally advertised this service or publicly announced a willingness to help you. Oregon passed its Death with Dignity Act in 1997, allowing assisted suicide, and Washington legalized assisted suicide in 2009. This removes the issue from federal law. A person who wants to commit suicide can do so, if the person is able to travel to one of these states.

The Constitution Doesn't Protect Assisted Suicide

The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently refused to apply constitutional rights to the issue of assisted suicide. In 1997, before the State of Washington legalized assisted suicide, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state was not violating a patient's Fourteenth Amendment rights to personal freedom by refusing to allow physicians to help them die. Later that year, the court issued the same type of decision regarding New York's laws against assisted suicide. It said that prohibiting assisted suicide does not violate a patient's constitutional rights.

An Elder Law or Healthcare Attorney Can Help

The law surrounding assisted suicide is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact an elder law or healthcare attorney.

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