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Assisted Suicide and the Right to Die

Eight Representative Cases

Recent court cases which played roles in the overall development of policy were:

Sneider v. Abeliuk (California, 1997): The plaintiff sought to recover medical expenses incurred for undesired treatment rendered after a valid decision was made to withhold life support. The action was based on battery, invasion of privacy, interference with personal relationships and violation of constitutional rights. A jury trial was held and the jurors ruled unanimously that the medical center was not at fault. However, the claims of battery for nonconsensual medical care have been well established in a variety of medical situations.

McIver v. Krischer (Florida, 1997): The court maintained that a terminally ill, competent adult, acting under no undue influence, has a constitutional right to choose to accelerate his own death by requesting from his physician a fatal dose of prescription drugs and then thereafter administering them to himself. The court ruled that a state ban on assisted suicide violated both the Florida Privacy Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The state appealed and the Florida Supreme Court heard oral arguments on 9 May 1997. In Krischer v. McIver the Court, in a 5-1 ruling, reversed the decision of the trial court, asserting that Florida's ban on physician-assisted suicide did not violate the Privacy Amendment to Florida's state constitution. Also, the Court, in conformance with the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decisions, held that the ban did not violate the Equal Protection Clause or the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

In re Fetus Brown (Illinois, 1997): This case was brought to the appellate court to determine whether a competent, pregnant woman's right to refuse medical treatment can be overridden by the state's interest in the survival of a viable fetus. In this particular case, the pregnant woman was a Jehovah's Witness who refused blood transfusions after a surgery which would save both her life and the life of the fetus. Upon a decision of the circuit court, the woman was restrained, sedated and received a blood transfusion. Several days later she delivered a healthy baby. The woman appealed the circuit court's decision to the appellate court. The appellate court held that "the State may not override a pregnant woman's competent treatment decision, including refusal of recommended invasive medical procedures, to save the life of a viable fetus."

Osgood v. Genesys Regional Medical Center (Michigan, 1997): A Michigan circuit court asserted that Genesys Regional Medical Center was guilty of battery when it misrepresented the nature of the medical procedures it performed as the procedures were in direct opposition to the patient advocate's directions and the directions of the durable power of attorney for health care. A jury awarded damages of approximately $16 million for mental anguish and for incurred and anticipated expenses for medical care and treatment. However, the court reduced the damage award. After further settlement negotiations, neither party appealed the decision.

Anderson v. St. Frances-St. George Hospital (Ohio, 1996): The Ohio Supreme Court specifically recognized that nonconsensual medical treatment is considered battery and may entitle a plaintiff to some relief. The plaintiff was resuscitated despite the existence of a properly issued do-not-resuscitate order and then suffered a disabling stroke several days later. The court, by refusing to recognize a cause of action for "wrongful life" leaves a person with an assault and battery cause of action. However, by using standard and restrictive "causation" analysis, the court ensured that not even battery damages would be recoverable, unless the battery caused subsequent medical injury which caused damage to the patient.

Lee v. Oregon (Oregon, 1997): The U.S. district court held that Oregon's Death with Dignity Act (Measure 16), the first law in the nation to legally authorize physician-assisted suicide, violated the Equal Protection Clause because the safeguards were not sufficient to protect the rights of terminally ill patients who may seek assisted suicide. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 3-0 vote, found that the plaintiffs had no legal standing to challenge Measure 16 because they failed to show any threat of immediate harm and their claim rested upon a "chain of speculative contingencies." The court did not decide the constitutional merits of physician-assisted suicide. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal and in November of 1997 the Oregon voters, in a repeat voter referendum on the issue, refused to repeal the act.

In re Fiori (Pennsylvania, 1996): The court ruled that where there is insufficient evidence of a patient's wishes as to the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment and the patient is in a permanent vegetative state, then close family members may substitute their own judgment and, with the concurrence of two qualified physicians, order the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment without seeking court approval. The court was careful to note that the ruling addressed only the narrow issue of whether life support may be terminated for a person in a persistent vegetative state who, when competent, never expressed desires as to specific medical treatment or withdrawal of such.

Compassion In Dying v. Washington (Washington, 1996): The Ninth Circuit Court, after an en banc hearing, ruled that the Washington State statute that prohibits assisted suicide is unconstitutional because it implicates the liberty interest of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court specifically ruled that the U.S. Constitution protects the right of competent, terminally ill patients to receive, and the right of physicians to prescribe, medications for the purpose of committing suicide.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationGreat American Court CasesAssisted Suicide and the Right to Die - History, An Ethical Dilemma, Eight Representative Cases, Refusal Of Treatment, Further Readings