Alaska Supreme Court Unanimously Rejects Assisted Suicide

By Jenny Nolan, Legislative Assistant
NRLC Department of Medical Ethics

On September 21, 2001, the Alaska Supreme Court unanimously ruled that there is no state constitutional right to assistance in suicide. The justices joined the highest courts of Florida and Michigan in declining to find such a right in their respective state constitutions. In 1997 the United States Supreme Court unanimously concluded there was no right to assisted suicide in the U.S. Constitution.

NRLC General Counsel James Bopp, Jr., who is president of the National Legal Center for the Medically Dependent & Disabled, which filed a friend of the court brief in the case, said, "This decision drives a stake close to the heart of the movement to legalize euthanasia through the courts."

The proponents of legalized assisted suicide "had a two-pronged strategy of bringing cases in both federal and state courts, claiming that assisted suicide bans violate both the United States and state constitutions," said Bopp. "They've now lost every case they've brought in both arenas."

The Alaska high court found "persuasive" the argument "that public policy considerations of assisted suicide must include a recognition that our society is one that, despite legal and social declarations to the contrary, frequently judges others on the basis of physical and mental disabilities, race, ethnicity, social-standing, and other factors unacceptable in life-valuing decision-making."

The court quoted with approval the influential report issued by the 1994 New York State Task Force on Life and the Law:

"[I]t must be recognized that assisted suicide and euthanasia will be practiced through the prism of social inequality and prejudice that characterizes the delivery of services in all segments of society, including health care. Those who will be most vulnerable to abuse, error, or indifference are the poor, minorities, and those who are least educated and least empowered...."

The case began in 1998 when Janice Kastella and Kevin Sampson, both terminally ill, filed suit. asking that their doctors be exempted from the state's manslaughter statute that prohibits anyone from intentionally aiding another to commit suicide. A superior court judge rejected their argument and the plaintiffs appealed to the state Supreme Court. Kastella and Sampson claimed that an exception for physicians to the ban on assisting suicide would not interfere with the state's interest in protecting life, a notion the court swiftly rejected.

Justice Alex Bryner wrote the unanimous opinion, drawing on reason, tradition, and judicial caution. Referring to the Alaska attorney general's office, which vigorously opposed the plaintiffs, Bryner wrote, "The state forcefully refutes this position. It insists 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."

The court also noted that "recent studies show a high correlation between depression and the desire of terminally ill patients to end life using physician-assisted suicide."

In addition, the plaintiffs asserted that the ban on assisted suicide violated the equal protection clause of the Alaska constitution. In cases of terminal illness, they argued, it is arbitrary for the law to distinguish between forgoing life-sustaining treatment and physician-assisted suicide when both result in the patient's death. However, the Alaska Supreme Court observed that courts and ethicists alike have recognized a fundamental difference between what Bryner called "action and forbearance."

Opposition to assisted suicide in Alaska is not new. In 1996 a measure to legalize assisted suicide failed to pass in the Alaska legislature.

The Alaska Supreme Court cited this as the most recent event in a long and consistent history of state opposition to physician-assisted suicide. Furthermore, Alaska's highest court reflected that the issues surrounding assisted suicide involve complex webs of morality, ethics, and medicine. The justices said such questions are best sorted out by the legislative branch.

The court's decision doesn't prohibit the legislature from ever legalizing assisted suicide, but it does say there is no constitutional right to assisted death and therefore bans on the practice are valid. Because the case dealt only with state constitution, the decision cannot be appealed to the federal courts.

Both plaintiffs died while the proceedings were underway. However, Compassion in Dying, a pro-euthanasia organization that had initiated the suit with them, continued it as a class action after their deaths. Robert Wagstaff, an attorney with Compassion in Dying, told the Anchorage Daily News that his organization was disappointed, but would continue to press the issue in other battles, comparing it to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Bob Flint, representing the Alaska Catholic Conference, argued against assisted suicide. In press interviews, Flint remarked on the need for good medical care, support, and companionship for the dying.

"Church people are no strangers to suffering," he told the Anchorage Daily News. "But there are principles that just don't allow us to kill people. It's that simple. We don't doubt the motives of the other side. We just disagree with them."

David N. O'Steen, Ph.D., executive director of the National Right to Life Committee, was pleased with the Alaska court's decision, but warned the battle is far from over.

"A unanimous ruling from this court is good news indeed, yet assisted suicides continue in Oregon and the pro-euthanasia forces continue to expend every effort to find additional ways to expand the death-dealing practice," he told NRL News. "We must be vigilant and educated if we are to defend the lives of the most vulnerable amongst us."