March 24, 2014

Is killing yourself a crime? States grapple with suicide laws

Daily Briefing

    Debate has erupted in two states over the definition of suicide, its legality, and whether physicians should be allowed to assist terminally ill patients in ending their lives, the Wall Street Journal reports.

    Nurse acquitted after being prosecuted for assisting father's suicide

    Connecticut's proposal

    A proposed law in Connecticut allowing physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients has sparked questions over what constitutes "terminally ill," invasion of privacy, and suicide. Under the proposal:

    • An attending doctor and consulting doctor would first have to verify that the patient in question is mentally competent and is so ill that he/she will likely die within six months.
    • Additionally, the patient must submit two written requests for suicide—submitted 15 days apart—signed while being witnessed by one nonrelative and another witness.
    • The attending physician would then be allowed to write a prescription for a life-ending medication, but the patient would be required to administer it to themselves.

    Opponents, such as the Connecticut Catholic Public Affairs Office and those in the hospice industry, say palliative therapies can provide enough comfort that terminally ill patients will not feel the need to end their lives.

    "I think it's a private matter during a very delicate time in one's life…this would be just a horrendous mistake on the part of the state to establish this legislation as a public policy," says Michael Culhane, executive director of the Connecticut Catholic Public Affairs Conference.

    The legislation is "dangerous" and could be construed as public acceptance of suicide, according to Stephen Mendelsohn, head of opposing group Second Thoughts Connecticut.

    Speaking at a legislative hearing last week, Sara Myers—a patient with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)—said the law would give her comfort for her future.

    "The emotional comfort of knowing that if I got to the point where I didn't want to go on—that I could do it in a loving and peaceful way and not put anybody in legal jeopardy—would just let me rest a whole lot easier," Myers said.

    "[I]t doesn't take very long to find a large group of people that are very supportive about this," says Tim Appleton, campaign manager for advocacy group Connecticut Compassion and Choices. The Connecticut chapter has about 5,000 members. He added that many have a "very personal story about a loved one who may have not have had a peaceful passing."

    If the proposal is approved, Connecticut would become the second state after Vermont to allow physicians to write lethal prescriptions for terminally ill patients. The practice was also made legal in Oregon and Washington through court referendums, but it is illegal in all other states.

    Controversial court case reaffirms legality of suicide

    Meanwhile, the Minnesota Supreme Court last week ruled that encouraging someone to commit suicide is not a crime. The ruling reverses the conviction of a nurse, William Francis Melchert-Dinkel, who urged people through an online community to commit suicide and let him watch via webcam

    Melchert-Dinkel succeeded in encouraging two people to commit suicide and as a result, was sentenced to one year in prison in 2011 under a law that made it illegal to "advise, encourage, or assist" in a suicide.

    Since suicide is not illegal in the state, Melchert-Dinkel's actions were not integral to a crime and his speech was protected under the First Amendment, the court ruled.

    "We conclude that the State may prosecute Melchert-Dinkel for assisting another in committing suicide, but not for encouraging or advising another to commit suicide," Justice Barry Anderson wrote in his ruling (Palazzolo, Wall Street Journal, 3/19; De Avila, Wall Street Journal, 3/19).

    More from today's Daily Briefing
    1. Current ArticleIs killing yourself a crime? States grapple with suicide laws

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