Euthanasia Essay - Civil Remedies and Assisted Suicide

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Civil Remedies and Assisted Suicide

This essay goes into the need for civil remedies to guard against assisted suicide actions by family, guardians, etc. Some states have already enacted such legislation, and others are in the process. This is a simple, safe legal procedure for protecting against the threat ot assisted suicide/euthanasia.

On May 2, 1994, a Michigan jury acquitted Jack Kevorkian of charges related to his publicly proclaimed assistance in the suicide of Thomas Hyde. The verdict points up the way in which the pathos of individual cases often leads criminal case juries to react emotionally, failing to give considerate attention to the general effects on older people and people with disabilities of signaling societal acceptance of death as the solution to human problems. This is a weakness in our society at the present time.

This is one of several strong reasons why more states should follow the lead of Minnesota, Tennessee, and North Dakota, all of which have recently enacted "civil remedy" statutes that, entirely apart from criminal remedies, allow private parties to obtain injunctions against those who assist suicides. Injunctions are granted by judges, without juries, and a judge can punish violators with sanctions for contempt of court.

Regrettably, the Kevorkian acquittal is not an isolated case of jury nullification of laws protecting suicide victims. Recent history demonstrates that no physicians, and few non-physicians, have been successfully prosecuted for assisting suicide. The emotional tug of individual cases makes prosecutors reluctant to seek punishment and juries reluctant to impose it. An article in the November 5, 1992 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine co-authored by Dr. Timothy Quill (who himself escaped penalty when a grand jury refused to indict him for his openly announced participation in assisting a suicide[1]) notes, "In every situation in which a physician has compassionately helped a terminally ill person to commit suicide, criminal charges have been dismissed or a verdict of not guilty has been brought."[2] Other studies confirm this conclusion, which in fact is not limited to circumstances of "terminal illness" or "compassion."[3]

While there have been a few successful criminal prosecutions of non-doctors, they have been extremely rare. A 1986 article in the Columbia Law Review concluded:

[A]ll indications are that assistance statutes are rarely, if ever, used. ... [D]espite the thousands of suicides each year, only about fifty news reports regarding some form of prosecution in the past decade for some type of assistance to suicide have been located.

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