Assisted suicide, also called physician-assisted suicide, has become a topic of national debate again with the news that a young woman named Brittany Maynard has chosen to die on Nov. 1. The 29-year-old was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer shortly after her wedding last year. Advocates are hoping that by gaining public support for the decision of one woman, they can help legalize assisted suicide in several other states.
Legal under federal law, outlawed in most states
Federal courts have protected an individual’s right to decide to die, but whether it’s legal at the state level is left up to the state.
Physician-assisted suicide is currently legal in five states. Three – Oregon, Washington and Vermont – legalized physician-assisted suicide through legislation. According to the “death with dignity” laws, two physicians must determine that a patient is not suffering from depression and has six months or less to live in order to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs. The patient may then choose to fill the prescription and take the drugs or not. Maynard and her family moved to Oregon from California expressly to take advantage of Oregon law.
Two other states, Montana and New Mexico, affirmed the right through the courts.
In a large majority of states, 41 plus Washington, D.C., assisted suicide is illegal through legislation or common law. Depending on the state, assisted suicide can lead to a charge of felony, manslaughter or murder, with fines and prison sentences consistent with those crimes.
Only four states – Nevada, North Carolina, Utah and Wyoming – have no laws addressing physician-assisted suicide.
Euthanasia, in which a physician administers the lethal dose as opposed to the patients themselves, is illegal in all states.
Right to die outlawed in most countries
Only a small number of countries, mostly European, have legalized euthanasia or assisted suicide.
Euthanasia is legal in Belgium, while only assisted suicide is legal in Germany and Switzerland. Individuals choosing to die in Switzerland do not need the aid of a physician and do not have to be residents; these unique laws have led to “suicide tourism.”
Both euthanasia and assisted suicide are legal in Luxembourg and, with some controversy, in the Netherlands. Children as young as 12 can decide to end their lives with parental consent. All individuals, regardless of age, must be suffering unbearably and have no hope for recovery.
A pending bill in Scotland would legalize assisted suicide there.
The only country outside North America and Europe that allows euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide is Colombia, where the right to die was affirmed through a decision of a high court. In Australia in the Northern Territory, four people chose to die during the short time that the law made euthanasia legal there in the mid-‘90s.
Advocacy groups challenge state laws
A recent Gallup poll found that that 7 in 10 Americans support euthanasia. The same poll found that the likelihood of support decreases with frequency of attending religious services. Only 48 percent of people who attend services weekly support assisted suicide compared with 82 percent who attend less frequently.
Advocates believe that mentally competent adults should have the right to choose to die with the help of a willing physician. Organizations like Compassion & Choices and Death with Dignity National Center are helping change public policy and bring lawsuits to challenge state law.
Organizations opposing the movement towards legalization include disability rights group Not Dead Yet, which fears that people may choose to die may because they feel like a burden or because they do not feel they have the financial resources to continue living.
For Brittany Maynard, it’s not just about whether she will end her life on Nov. 1 or not, but that she has the right to.