Legality of Euthanasia in the USA

Introduction

In layman’s terms, euthanasia is the deliberate termination of a person’s life who is suffering from excruciating and incurable diseases.

We’ve gathered today to discuss the status of euthanasia in the United States of America. While euthanasia is illegal in the United States, many states allow for assisted suicide.

History

Oregon became the first state in the United States to allow physician-assisted suicide for qualified, terminally ill adults on November 8, 1994. The Oregon Death with Dignity Act of 1994, also known as the Oregon Rights of the Terminally Ill Act of 1994, aims to provide qualified terminally ill patients with the option of hastening their death while ensuring that no one commits physically assisted suicide (PAS) involuntarily.

These precautions include the following: (1) limited eligibility (2) voluntariness (3) patients’ ability or competence (4) informed decision-making; (5) waiting periods (6) second medical opinions (7) witnesses.

According to the Act of 1994, any capable adult (over the age of 18) who is a native of Oregon and has a terminal illness with a life expectancy of fewer than six months. The person must make one written and two oral requests for medication to end his or her life in a humane and dignified manner, the written request being substantially in the form given in the Act, signed, dated, and witnessed by two people present who testify that the person is acting willingly and not being compelled to sign the request.

The constitutionality of the Oregon Act was challenged in Lee vs. Oregon on November 23, 1994, fifteen days before it was to take effect. The plaintiff argued that the Act violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, among other things.

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The District Federal Court agreed with the petitioners and ruled the Oregon Act unconstitutional because it violated “the Equal Protection Clause,” and imposed an injunction preventing its enforcement. However, on appeal, the Northern Circuit Court overturned the District Court’s decision that the plaintiffs lacked standing (locus standi), and the US Supreme Court declined to issue Certiorari. The court cited five reasons for allowing terminally ill people to benefit from an exception to the Oregon Act;

  1. Preventing unnecessary suffering and pain.
  2. Preserving and enhancing competent adults’ rights to make their own healthcare decisions
  3. Preventing tragic cases of attempted or successful suicides that are less humane and dignified.
  4. Providing financial security to terminally ill patients and their families.
  5. Preventing unwanted intrusions into the personal lives of terminally ill people and their loved ones.

Washington became the second state in the United States to legalize physician-assisted suicide in 2008, with the passage of the Washington Death with Dignity Act. However, this was not the case previously, as a case called Washington vs Gluckenberg occurred in 1992, in which the District Federal Court agreed with the petitioner’s consent and stated that the assisted suicide ban is unconstitutional, but when it reached the Court of Appeal, they reversed the District Court’s findings and stated that the asserted right to assistance in committing suicide was notwithstanding.

Montana: Baxter: Montana was the third state in the United States to legalize physician-assisted death (after Oregon and Washington), but it was done by the state judiciary instead of the legislature. The Montana Supreme Court issued its decision in the case of Baxter v Montana on December 31, 2009, allowing physicians to prescribe lethal injection. The court concluded that nothing in Montana Supreme Court precedent or Montana statutes suggests that physician-ass isted suicide is against public policy. 

The Texas Futile Care Law, passed in 1999, allows Texas hospitals and physicians to withhold life support treatments, such as mechanical respiration, from terminally ill patients in certain circumstances where such treatment is deemed futile and unacceptable. However, euthanasia and physician-assisted death are not legal in Texas since they are covered by the Texas Futile Care Law.

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After Dr. Kevorkian (nicknamed “the doctor death”) began encouraging and assisting in suicides, Michigan state banned euthanasia and assisted suicide in 1993. Later on in the year 1999, he was found guilty of televised assisted suicide and his medical licence was revoked, and he served eight years in prison.

Despite the fact that 75% of Californians support physician-assisted death, the topic is extremely divisive in the state legislature. In the United States, forty states have passed legislation making it illegal to provide someone with the means to end his or her life. California became the first state to legalize living wills in 1997, and other states quickly followed suit. A living will (also known as an advance directive or advance decision) is an order provided by a person while conscious that specifies what action should be taken in the event that he or she is unable to make decisions due to illness or incapacity, and appoints someone to make those decisions on his or her behalf. It may include an order to turn off life support under some circumstances.

Current Scenario

Active euthanasia is illegal in all states in the United States, but physician-assisted suicide (PAS) is legal in Oregon, Washington, and Montana. The difference between euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide is who administers the lethal drug. In the first case, the physician or someone else administers it, whereas in the second case, the patient administers it himself, albeit on the advice of the doctor.

In the United States, physician-assisted suicide (PAS) is currently legal in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia. This was not the case previously, all these states legalized it for a while.

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Conclusion

We can see here that there was a long campaign for the legalization of euthanasia in the United States of America, after which only eight states allowed physician-assisted suicide (PAS). The revolution to bring about reform began in Washington in 1992 with the case of Washington vs Gluckenberg, and later on, Oregon attempted to pass The Oregon Death with Dignity Act of 1994, but it was also challenged on constitutional grounds. However, the Supreme Court later accepted it.

Euthanasia, in my opinion, should be legalized in all 50 states of the United States of America. By legalizing this, a critically ill person, like any other citizen, can lawfully kill themselves to hasten their death and obtain relief from disability or chronic illness, However, this is not feasible since only eight states permit it.

Author: Jenish Gandhi,
Navrachana University, 2nd year/ Student

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