Has the Right to Die with Dignity Been Resuscitated?

During the years in which Dr. Jack Kevorkian was assisting terminally-ill patients with their suicides, a few states passed laws making it legal for doctors to help such people avoid further agony. Oregon was the first in 1997 when it passed its "Death with Dignity Act". Nothing else happened for 11 years in the other 49 states. Then, in 2008, voters in the state of Washington approved a similar law allowing physician-assisted suicide.

The Supreme Court of Montana in 2009 ruled that existing law there did not prohibit a doctor's assistance in dying. Last year, the Vermont legislature legalized the practice. Days ago in New Mexico, the issue was decided in a case taken to court by two doctors who asked for protection from prosecution if they provided fatal drugs to a patient. The patient, Ms. Riggs, joined them in the suit and told the court in December, "I don't want to suffer needlessly at the end." The doctors' fear came from a state law making it a crime to assist a suicide.

Ms. Riggs has had aggressive treatment, including radiation and chemotherapy, for advanced uterine cancer. It's in remission at the moment, so all she asked of the court was that she be given the choice to end her life if the suffering becomes too great. The state asked the court to hold the criminal statute constitutional, but the judge decided otherwise. She ruled that patients like Ms. Riggs have a fundamental right to seek aid in dying because the state's constitution prohibits the state from depriving a person from enjoying life and liberty or seeking and obtaining safety and happiness.

She said the court couldn't envision a right more fundamental, more private, or more integral to the liberty, safety, and happiness of a citizen than the right of a competent, terminally-ill patient to choose aid in dying. She also ruled that the doctors who help her cannot be prosecuted. The ruling a few days ago has further resuscitated Kevorkian's idea of the right to die with dignity. Time will tell if Florida and other states follow the lead.

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