Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS)
Activity in Washington state
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:
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."
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."
||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:
||Contained no clause prohibiting PAS for a person who was simply depressed.
||Would make Washington State into a destination for persons who wanted to
||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,
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
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.
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.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
"The 1991 election : Euthanasia; Voters turn down mercy killing idea," The
New York Times, 1991-NOV-07, at:
Text of "The Washington Death with Dignity Act: Initiative Measure No.
1000," Washington Secretary of State, at:
http://www.secstate.wa.gov/ This is a PDF file.
The Death with Dignity National Center tracks bill activity at the
state, national and international level. See:
Copyright © 1997 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on
Last updated 2009-MAR-06
Author: Bruce A Robinson