A Washington state law that bars physician-assisted suicide was ruled unconstitutional Tuesday on grounds that it deprives terminally ill patients of personal liberty guaranteed under the 14th Amendment.
In deciding a suit brought by a group of doctors and others who help terminally ill patients commit suicide, U.S. District Judge Barbara J. Rothstein said that "a competent, terminally ill adult has a constitutionally guaranteed right . . . to commit physician-assisted suicide."
Rothstein also wrote that she could not see the difference "between refusing life-sustaining medical treatment," which is constitutionally protected, and "physician-assisted suicide by an uncoerced, mentally competent, terminally ill adult."
An attorney for the group, Compassion in Dying, called the decision voiding the law "a tremendous victory" and said that it should offer "a measure of confidence to physicians who might want to provide physician-assisted suicide." The group offers counseling and instruction to patients who are considering suicide but does not provide the means for ending life.
Dr. Richard Seaman, president of the Washington State Medical Assn., said that the decision "brings us very close to the slippery slope. Ethically, the doctor's role is taking care of the living patient."
At least 30 states have laws banning doctor-assisted suicide similar to the Washington law. Voters here turned down an initiative in 1991 that would have made doctor-assisted suicide legal for terminally ill patients, as did Californians in 1992.
A spokesman for the state attorney general's office said that it would decide in the next few days whether to appeal the decision.
The judge's ruling came one day after a Detroit Recorder's Court jury acquitted Dr. Jack Kevorkian on a charge of violating Michigan's ban on assisted suicide in the death of a man with Lou Gehrig's disease.
Unlike Kevorkian, who has been present at 20 deaths in Michigan since 1990, no one in Washington state has gone public with their efforts to assist in suicides.