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Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS)

Activity in Washington state

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Washington State: 1991 Initiative 119 fails:

Initiative 119 was narrowly defeated by a vote of 54% to 46%. It was the first public vote anywhere in the world that might have legalized physician assisted suicide (PAS). It would have allowed terminally ill persons to request either a fatal injection or a prescription for a fatal dose of medication from their physician. The patient would have had to be certified as having a life expectancy less than six months, be conscious and competent, and had made a written request for aid in dying that was witnessed by two persons who had neither a familial nor financial stake in the patient's death.

Some comments after the vote:

bullet The Rev. Ralph Mero, a Unitarian minister and president of the state's Hemlock Society which was a primary sponsor of the initiative, said: "Our society's understanding of death and dying won't be the same from here forward."
bullet Dr. Robin Bernhoft, a surgeon and president of Washington Physicians Against Initiative 119 said: "The authors have done us a great public service. This is the problem the system has neglected for far too long a time."
bullet Susan Wolf, a lawyer at the Hastings Center in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., where medical ethicists had opposed the Washington measure, said: "It's hard to think of a question more momentous than this one. There are real arguments on both sides and I can't overstate the importance of debating it openly."

Jane Gross, a reporter at the New York Times, wrote:

"Voters interviewed on their way to and from the polls said they took very seriously that they were the first in the world to pass electoral judgment on legal euthanasia. Statewide surveys early in the race showed broad agreement for the principle of doctor-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients who request it, a finding that matched the results of national polls. But that support narrowed, and voters grew squeamish and doubtful as they looked at the fine print of the initiative. ..."

"Dr. Robin Bernhoft, a surgeon in nearby Everett who is president of Washington Physicians Against Initiative 119. 'The authors have done us a great public service,' Dr. Bernhoft said. 'This is the problem the system has neglected for far too long a time'." 1

Among the concerns of the public were that the proposed Initiative:

bullet Contained no clause prohibiting PAS for a person who was simply depressed.
bullet Would make Washington State into a destination for persons who wanted to die.
bullet Would have put pressure on terminally ill persons who wanted to save their families the cost and mental anguish of a lingering death.

The International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide is a group that opposes PAS. They state that after the failed 1991 initiative, the Legislature made three attempts to pass an assisted suicide bill. All failed.

1996 court activity ultimately fails:

On 1996-MAR-7, The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals declared as unconstitutional a Washington State law that criminalized physician assisted suicide for terminally ill patients. The court ruled by an 8 to 3 majority that the law violates the equal protection clause guaranteed by the 14 Amendment to the US constitution.

Over 40 states have specific laws which specifically criminalize assisted suicide. This ruling only affected Western states and territories: Alaska, Arizona, California, Guam, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, N. Mariana Islands, Oregon and Washington.

The court ruling stated:

"when patients are no longer able to pursue liberty or happiness and do not wish to pursue life, the state's interest in forcing them to remain alive is less compelling....A mentally competent, terminally ill adult, having lived nearly the full measure of his life, has a strong liberty interest in choosing a dignified and humane death rather than being reduced to a child-like state of helplessness, diapered, sedated, incompetent."

The decision was condemned by the American Medical Association, the Roman Catholic Church and many groups within the pro-life lobby. It was greeted with enthusiasm by many persons with AIDS and their caregivers. The ruling was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

On 1997-JUN-26 the court found that the average American has no constitutional right to a physician assisted suicide. The vote was 9 to 0, an unusual, unanimous decision on a ethical question. In recent years, almost all decisions have been voted 5 to 4. Thus, the laws in New York, Washington, and dozens of other states which ban such assisted suicides are thus constitutional.

On the other hand, the court implied that there is no constitutional bar that would prevent a state from passing a law permitting physician assisted suicide. In 1997, Oregon became the first state to do this with Oregon Measure 16, passed in 1994. Washington state followed in 2008. So, the battle must be fought on a state by state basis.

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2008: Initiative 1000 passed:

The initiative was added to the 2008-NOV ballot where it passed by a vote of 58% to 42%. Washington State became the second state in the U.S. to approve PAS for its citizens. 2 It went into effect four months later on 2009-MAR-05. Full details.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "The 1991 election : Euthanasia; Voters turn down mercy killing idea," The New York Times, 1991-NOV-07, at:
  2. Text of "The Washington Death with Dignity Act: Initiative Measure No. 1000," Washington Secretary of State, at: This is a PDF file.

Up-to-date information:

The Death with Dignity National Center tracks bill activity at the state, national and international level. See:

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Copyright 1997 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last updated 2009-MAR-06

Author: Bruce A Robinson

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