If you are a senior who is sick, in a lot of pain and misery, and the doctor told you that you had little time left, would you want the right to choice how and when to die. Many Americans at any age know about Roe V Wade, the 1973 United States Supreme Court Case. The case that is well-known as a constitutional right for women to have an abortion. However, not many Americans are able to similarly identify the important court cases that paved the way for right to die laws and the acceptance of euthanasia or mercy killing in America. This new constitutional so-called right to die involves the ability to terminate those at the end of life. Many are elderly or disabled, or lack an individual “quality of life” or whose care is determined to be pointless.
The very first U.S. court case to deal with the issue of end-of-life care was a 1976 New Jersey state court case. Karen Ann Quinlan became the first icon of the modern right to die movement. Her Catholic family remained true to their church’s teachings, and did not take on the idea of euthanasia or mercy killing. Therefore, euthanasia and right to die advocates used Karen Ann Quinlan to advance the idea of Living Wills. The Living Will always individuals to authorize their own end-of-life wishes, by requesting not heroics and the removal of medical life giving means. The removal of such living means as artificial life support, food and water. http://www.nytimes.com/1985/06/12/nyregion/karen-ann-quinlan-31-dies-focus-of-76-right-to-die-case.html
The second case was the case of Cruzan v. Director of Missouri Department of Health took the end-of-life issue one step farther down the road toward active euthanasia. The Cruzan family wanted to remove their daughter’s food and water rather than artificial life support. The Court’s decision in favor of death by dehydration and starvation was made in 1990. Nancy Cruzan of necessity was provided died 11 days after her feeding tube was removed, on the day after Christmas. http://www.nytimes.com/1990/12/27/us/nancy-cruzan-dies-outlived-by-a-debate-over-the-right-to-die.html
The outcome in the Cruzan case highlighted the right to die movement, which was then already promoting mercy killing in the United States. This had Americans become even more forcibly alerted that they needed to document their end-of-life wishes before they became disabled or incompetent. Living Wills were aggressively promoted by America’s euthanasia advocates as a means through which individuals could indicate ahead of time that they wanted to refuse certain types of medical treatment, including food and water, if they should become incompetent or otherwise unable to speak for themselves. The use of Living Wills became ever more common in America in the wake of the Cruzan case.
The third case was an important case in Florida in 1990. The Estelle Browning case was decided the same year as the Cruzan case. This important case in the Florida state court established a right to die by refusing artificial nutrition and hydration as well as unexpected medical treatment. This case involved Living Wills and the right to refuse, not only treatment, but food and water as well, in order to make sure that death would occur. This case could be characterized as establishing a right to suicide.
Mrs. Browning was the only prominent end-of-life litigant who had actually drafted a Living Will before surviving an incapacitating stroke. She stated in her Living Will that she did not want to be kept alive by artificial means, including a feeding tube. Sadly, before her case was concluded, Mrs. Browning died of natural causes in 1989, ironically, the very way she had not chosen in her Living Will. She died at the age of 89 in a Florida nursing home, still being fed through a feeding tube. The court held that the execution of a Living Will allows caregivers to withhold food and water, as well as artificial life support, from an incapacitated person even when death is not imminent. This decision became an important Florida precedent for the Terri Schiavo case a few years later. http://www.nytimes.com/1989/07/19/us/florida-woman-dies-attached-to-a-tube-legal-fight-goes-on.html
The Browning case set the stage for the most recent and probably most well-known right to die case, that of Terri Schiavo, a young Florida woman who was severely brain damaged following a collapse of unknown origin in her home. The differences in the Terri Schiavo case and the Estelle Browning case was Terri was physically healthy and could have lived for many more years. In addition, Terri did not have a Living Will or any other written end-of-life or health care document. Her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler and siblings, Bobby and Suzanne, wanted to care for her and provide therapy, but her husband found George Felos, Mrs. Browning’s lawyer, and went to court to obtain a death sentence from a civil court.
Terri’s case was appealed to every state and federal location possible. Her parent’s attorneys petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court three times to become involved. Terri’s family also unsuccessfully petitioned Congress to legally permit jurisdiction for a new trial in federal court, to which she would have been entitled had a criminal court ordered her execution. The family had exhausted all options by March 2005, and the Pinellas County, Florida Probate Court carried out Judge Greer’s death Order. Terri’s food and water were withheld for nearly two weeks until she was dead.
Terri’s case has permitted Florida nursing homes and hospitals to more easily end the lives of the disabled and elderly, based on a persistent vegetative states diagnosis (pvs diagnosis), even when patients have not indicated their end-of-life wishes in writing and are not terminally ill. Families or guardians only need to state that death would have been the patient’s wish, even when other family members might disagree. This trend is spreading to other states whose legislatures are also enacting laws favoring death over life. Judges and doctors, as well as some families, use a quality of life standard to determine that a patient would no longer wish to live, rather than allowing God to determine the patient’s time of death.
Whose right is it to choose? The decision to terminate life at both ends of existence is always cast as a right to choose. However, it is generally not the person who will die who makes the choice. Mothers make the choice for their unborn babies. Karen Ann Quinlan’s parents, doctors and the courts made the choice for her, although, in her case, their choice, although unintended, allowed her to continue living.
Oregon became the first state in the nation to enact legislation allowing physician-assisted suicide under nearly any circumstances. The federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) was enacted in 1970 to govern the distribution of certain substances. This act requires doctors to register for the right to distribute particular medications. The CSA also gives the U.S. Attorney General power to deny, suspend or revoke a doctor’s registration that would be inconsistent with the public interest. Oregon later enacted the state’s Oregon Death With Dignity Act (ODWDA), giving doctors the right to prescribe medicines the patient intended to use to commit suicide. The U.S. Attorney General issued an Interpretive Rule stating that the use of prescriptions for physician-assisted suicide was not a legitimate medical purpose. This meant that if an Oregon doctor prescribed medication so that a patient could commit suicide, the doctor would be in violation of the CSA.
The State of Oregon and other individuals sued the federal government to prevent enforcement of the federal CSA against doctors who took advantage of the ODWDA in order to assist their patients to commit suicide. The United States Supreme Court held that the U.S. Attorney General’s Interpretive Rule was invalid and a majority of Justices upheld Oregon’s practice of assisted suicide as permitted by the ODWDA. In 2006, in the case of Gonzales v. Oregon, the United States Supreme Court upheld Oregon’s radical right to die law as constitutional.
The Court ruled that The Controlled Substance Act did not authorize the U.S. Attorney General to prohibit doctors from prescribing regulated drugs for use in physician-assisted suicide. Their rationale was that to allow the U.S. Attorney General to enforce its Interpretive Rule to invalidate the Oregon statute would violate state’s rights and permit the federal government to intrude on issues of life and death determined by the States. Of course, this ruling was the exact opposite of the ruling in Roe v. Wade, which allowed the federal government to overrule state laws prohibiting abortion, but no one seemed to mind that contradictory detail.
The Attorney General’s Interpretive Rule, which had stated that physician-assisted suicide was not a legitimate medical purpose for the use of controlled substances, was declared by the Court to be invalid. This decision now allows individuals in Oregon and in any state that cares to enact such legislation to engage in physician-assisted suicide. Physician-assisted suicide was upheld in Oregon, permitting other states to follow this lead should they care to do so. The only states at this time that have the death with dignity laws are Oregon, Washington, Texas, Montana, and Vermont. Oregon, Washington, and Vermont Death with Dignity laws allow mentally competent, terminally-ill adult state residents to voluntarily request and receive a prescription medication to hasten their death. This is one of many end-of-life care options available in Oregon, Washington, and Vermont.
The question of who has the right to choose how you die. The answer is you, and the death with dignity law allows this. There are only five states that allow death with dignity, and have the assisted suicide for individuals, who are terminal. The goal is to give people who are terminally ill a dignified way to exit, and one without severe pain and discomfort. A way to say goodbye and the family does not have to see the person waste away. This begins with making sure people are getting the best possible and quality of care, and gives them the opportunity to explore every option available to them. The law gives people the opportunity to die with dignity.