ANCHORAGE, Alaska — With a unanimous decision by its state Supreme Court, Alaska became the latest state to reject physician-assisted suicide Sept. 21.
The court said it would leave the question to lawmakers. “Because the controversy surrounding physician-assisted suicide is so firmly rooted in questions of social policy … it is a quintessentially legislative matter,” Justice Alexander O. Bryner wrote in his opinion, according to the Associated Press. In 1996, Alaska lawmakers rejected a bill to legalize assisted suicide.
Sampson v. Alaska pitted Kevin Sampson, an Anchorage man diagnosed with AIDS in 1992, against Alaska. He was joined by an elderly woman physician known only as Jane Doe, who had breast cancer. Both plaintiffs died last year. Their suit sought an exemption from Alaska law, under which a doctor who participates in a suicide can be charged with manslaughter.
The state Supreme Court found that Alaska's privacy clause means the government can restrict personal privacy of doctors and patients only if it doesn't harm others. “And a physician who assists in a suicide undeniably causes harm to others,” Bryner said.
Oregon is the only state which allows physician-assisted suicide. At least 70 people have used the law to end their lives since it was passed in 1997, reported Associated Press.
“We are obviously very pleased,” Robert Flint, spokesman for the Alaska Catholic Conference, told the Register.
“The Alaska Supreme Court has been very ‘progressive’ on life issues, on abortion and abortion funding, for example,” said Flint, whose organization filed an amicus brief in the suicide case.
He noted that the high court has a reputation for “adventurous” legal interpretations. “This time,” he said, “they weren't willing to be so adventurous.”
Writing the decision for the court, Justice Bryner said that the state had an interest in recognizing that “the terminally ill are a class of persons who need protection from family, social and economic pressures, and who are often particularly vulnerable to such pressures because of chronic pain, depression, and the effects of medication.”
No Slippery Slope?
Jennifer Rudinger, spokeswoman for the Alaska Civil Liberties Union, which supported physician-assisted suicide in the case, said she was not surprised by the verdict in Sampson v. State of Alaska.
“I went to the oral arguments last November. I could tell they were grappling with this issue,” Rudinger told the Register. “I came out of the court without pessimism or optimism.”
She noted that organizations that support physician-assisted suicide targeted Alaska because of its constitutional protections for privacy and liberty.
“Compassion in Dying and the Hemlock Society decided on Alaska, because we have a privacy clause and a liberty clause,” Rudinger said. “If any state would define this as an affirmative right, Alaska would.”
She said the court should not have been worried about events in Oregon, where physician-assisted suicide is legal.
“It's essentially a test case in Oregon. So far, there's no reason to believe that the slippery slope will occur in other states,” she said.
But Dr. Gregory Hamilton, a physician in Portland, Ore., who specializes in palliative care, rejected Rudinger's assessment. He cited the case of Kate Cheney, a demented woman who, he thinks, died against her will.
“Under pressure from her family, the HMO administered physician-assisted suicide,” Hamilton told the Register.
“Physician-assisted suicide is not a private act,” he said. “When families and financial institutions are involved, it puts vulnerable people under jeopardy. That's what the judges were worried about. These things are happening in Oregon, and we are going to document this.”
The legal defeat in Alaska “is wonderful news,” said James Bopp, Jr., president of the Terre Haute, Ind.-based National Legal Center for the Medically Dependent and Disabled.
“It seems like they've reached the end of the road, to have the courts impose physician-assisted suicide on America,” Bopp told the Register. “And they have picked some of the most liberal jurisdictions in the country.”
He pointed to recent court cases in Florida and California as proof that the judiciary is unwilling to define a “right” to physician-assisted suicide. He also noted that voters in Michigan and Maine rejected referenda that would legalize the practice.
And the federal government might put a stop to physician-assisted suicide in Oregon, Bopp said.
“The DEA had a policy that physicians could not prescribe drugs to kill patients,” he said. Former Attorney General Janet Reno reversed that policy, he noted. “Now we'll probably see actions on behalf of the U.S. government to shut the door on this,” said Bopp, who predicted that the current attorney general, John Ashcroft, would reverse Reno's ruling.
In the meantime, Rudinger acknowledged that physician-assisted suicide would not arrive in Alaska in the near future.
“At this point, the Alaska Civil Liberties Union is not planning to bring this to the legislature,” she said. Rudinger added that, if such legislation were introduced, then her organization would support it, but she acknowledged that “it probably would not pass.”
Which makes the court victory that much more consoling to Flint.
“The struggle goes on,” he said, “but it is a great victory.”
Joshua Mercer writes from Washington, D.C.