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On 15 February of this year, shortly after the number of people Dr. Jack Kevorkian had helped to commit suicide swelled to fifteen, the Michigan legislature passed a law, effective that very day, making assisted suicide a felony punishable by up to four years in prison. The law, which is automatically repealed six months after a newly established commission on death and dying recommends permanent legislation, prohibits anyone with knowledge that another person intends to commit suicide from "intentionally providing the physical means" by which the other person does so or from "intentionally participat[ing] in a physical act" by which she does so. A two-thirds majority of each house was needed to give the new Michigan law immediate effect, but that requirement was easily met. The governor applauded the legislature and signed the law the same day. But this is not the end of the story. A week later, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan brought a lawsuit on behalf of two cancer patients and several health care professionals who specialize in the care of the terminally ill, attacking the law's constitutionality. The essence of the challenge is that insofar as the law prohibits a health professional, family member, or friend from assisting a competent, terminally ill person who wished to hasten her death, the law violates the due process clauses of the state and federal constitutions and the "Right to Privacy Guarante" of the state constitution. If the Michigan Supreme Court overturns the prohibition against assisted suicide on state constitutional grounds, this particular lawsuit will come to an end. If, however, as I think likely, the state supreme court upholds the prohibition, the U.S. Supreme Court may decide to review the matter. Since approximately twenty-five states expressly prohibit assisted suicide by statute and another ten or twelve make some types of assisted suicide a form of murder or manslaughter, the Supreme Court is likely to address the question in some case from some state, whether Michigan or another, in the near future. In this article, I shall only discuss federal constitutional arguments for invalidating laws against suicide. I also believe various reasons why I believe these arguments will (and should) fail.


Reprinted with permission of the Hastings Center Report, Wiley-Blackwell publisher.