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Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide

The People Vote

There have been several attempts in the United States to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide through state initiatives. The first attempt came in 1988, when euthanasia supporters attempted to qualify an initiative for the ballot in California, which would have permitted physicians to administer lethal injections for terminally ill patients who asked to have their deaths hastened. The attempt failed to garner enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. However, in 1991, Initiative 119, a similar proposal, was successfully placed on Washington's ballot. After initial polling showed voter support in excess of 70 percent, the initiative lost 54 to 46 percent. The pattern repeated itself in California in 1992, when a virtually identical proposal appeared on the California ballot in November 1992 as Proposition 161. After initial support in excess of 70 percent, the measure also lost by a margin of 54 to 46 percent.

Two years later, in Oregon, Measure 16—the Oregon Death with Dignity Act—qualified for the November 1994 ballot. Unlike the earlier failed initiatives, Measure 16 limited its scope to legalizing physician-assisted suicide. The measure passed narrowly, 51 to 49 percent. The law was soon overturned as a violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, this decision was itself overturned by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on procedural grounds (Lee v. Oregon). The United States Supreme Court refused to review the Ninth Circuit's opinion. An attempt by opponents to repeal Measure 16 through another ballot initiative, Measure 51, failed in November 1997 by a margin of 60 to 40 percent. The law was in effect as of 1999.

In 1998, supporters of assisted suicide qualified Proposal B for the November ballot in Michigan. Proposal B, like Measure 16, would have restricted legalization to assisted suicide and its terms were very similar to those of the Oregon law. The debate over Proposal B was complicated by two factors: Michigan was the home state of Dr. Jack Kevorkian and Kevorkian's attorney, Geoffrey Fieger, was the Democratic nominee for governor. Whatever the impact of these ancillary issues, when the votes were counted, Proposal B lost by an overwhelming 71 to 29 percent.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawEuthanasia and Assisted Suicide - The Modern Euthanasia Movement, Pros And Cons, The People Vote, Jack Kevorkian, Legal Challenges