Euthanasia/Assisted Suicide

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Euthanasia/Assisted Suicide

In the years following Cahill's and Paris's discussions, the fervor of the national debate over assisted suicide and euthanasia has not abated. Instead, it has been recast in legal, individualistic terms, in a manner disturbingly reminiscent of our intractable social battles over abortion. No longer at the forefront of the discussion is the question when, if ever, it is morally right for dying or seriously ill individuals intentionally to take their own lives. Instead, the issue occupying center stage is whether they should have a legal right to do so, and if necessary to enlist the aid of a physician willing to prescribe the lethal dose. (Chris , 39-44)

What should be the appropriate stance of the criminal and civil law toward various types of physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia? This question is extremely complex. At the heart of the matter, of course, are the moral questions alluded to in our opening paragraph. However, the resolution of the moral issue in and of itself does not dictate sound law. In some cases, a society might rightly choose not to punish acts it believes to be seriously immoral. Conversely, a society might decide to enact a blanket prohibition against certain types of behavior, despite the fact that they might be morally permissible in certain cases. (Daniel , 32-38)

Key factors in the decision about criminalization include whether the behavior in question directly harms only the individual performing it or others as well, how widely supported the moral judgment about that behavior is, whether the prohibition will be an effective deterrent, the level of resources required to enforce it, and the probability that it can be enforced equitably.

Within a one-month period in the early spring of 1996, two federal courts of appeals handed down decisions with momentous implications not only for medical decision making at the end of life, but also in the context of severely painful or debilitating illness. Both courts held unconstitutional state prohibitions against aiding or abetting suicide, when those laws are applied to physicians prescribing lethal doses of medication for use by their competent, terminally ill patients. While agreeing upon the proper fate of the statutes in question, the two courts emphasized different aspects of the jurisprudential path taken to achieve it. The Supreme Court has granted certiorari to the two cases, and will likely render its decision late in the spring of 1997. No matter how the Court decides, the arguments raised by the Ninth and Second Circuits will shape the public discussion of assisted suicide and euthanasia for years to come. (George, 875-97)

Compassion: In Compassion in Dying v. State of Washington, an eleven-member en banc panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that individuals have a constitutionally protected "liberty interest" in "choosing the time and manner of one's death." This liberty interest does not have a clear textual basis in the Constitution. Where, then, does it come from? Writing for the en banc majority, Judge Stephen Reinhardt attempts to anchor it in two cases recently decided ...
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