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Euthanasia - Physician-assisted Suicide

kevorkian court supreme michigan

Somewhat of a hybrid between passive and active euthanasia is physician-assisted suicide (PAS), also known as voluntary passive euthanasia. In this situation, a physician supplies information and/or the means of committing suicide (e.g., a prescription for lethal dose of sleeping pills, or a supply of carbon monoxide gas) to a person, so that that individual can successfully terminate his or her own life.

Physician-assisted suicide received greater public attention after Dr. Kevorkian, a retired pathologist from Michigan, participated in his first such procedure in 1990. Kevorkian set up a machine that allowed a 54-year-old woman suffering from Alzheimer's disease (a degenerative neurological condition) to press a button that delivered a lethal poison into her veins. Kevorkian went on to assist in the suicides of dozens of individuals suffering from terminal, debilitating, or chronic illnesses. In 1992, Michigan passed an assisted-suicide bill (Mich. Comp. Laws § 752.1021) that was specifically designed to stop Kevorkian's activities, but technicalities and questions as to its constitutionality delayed its implementation, thus allowing Kevorkian to continue assisting suicides—often in direct opposition to court injunctions.

Kevorkian was charged with murder several times but was not initially found guilty. When murder charges were brought against him for his first three assisted suicides, for example, they were dismissed because Michigan, at that time, had no law against assisted suicide. In 1994, Kevorkian was tried and found not guilty of assisting in the August 1993 suicide of Thomas W. Hyde Jr. In December 1994, however, Michigan's supreme court ruled in People v. Kevorkian, 447 Mich. 436, 527 N.W. 2d 714, that there is no constitutional right to commit suicide, with or without assistance, and upheld the Michigan statute that made assisted suicide a crime. The following year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Kevorkian's appeal from the state supreme court's ruling.

Observers disagree about the humanity of Kevorkian's activities. Some see him as a hero who sought to give suffering people greater choice and dignity in dying. Others point to his lack of procedural precautions and fear that the widespread practice of assisted suicide will lead to the unnecessary death of people who could have been helped by other means, including treatment for depression. Many opponents of assisted suicide find the same faults in the practice that they see in other forms of euthanasia. They envision its leading to a devaluation of human life and even to a genocidal killing of vulnerable or so-called undesirable individuals.

The U.S. Supreme Court has made two important rulings on assisted suicide. In WASHINGTON V. GLUCKSBERG, 521 U.S. 702, 117 S.Ct. 2258, 138 L.Ed.2d 772, 65 (1997), three terminally ill patients, four physicians, and a non-profit organization had brought action against the state of Washington for DECLARATORY JUDGMENT, that a statute banning assisted suicide violated DUE PROCESS CLAUSE. On June 26, 1997, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the right of states to prohibit assisted suicide, holding that: (1) asserted right to assistance in committing suicide was not a fundamental liberty interest protected by due process clause, and (2) Washington's ban on assisted suicide was rationally related to legitimate government interests. In Vacco v. Quill, 521 U.S. 793, 117 S.Ct. 2293, 138 L.Ed.2d 834 (1997), physicians challenged the constitutionality of New York statutes making it a crime to aid a person in committing suicide or attempting to commit suicide. The Supreme Court held that New York's prohibition on assisting suicide did not violate the EQUAL PROTECTION CLAUSE of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT.

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