KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A federal appeals court ruling on how terminally ill Americans may choose to die exceeds the limits of a 1990 Supreme Court decision, a University of Tennessee philosophy professor said Thursday.
“The Supreme Court recognized the right of a terminally ill patient to have life-support systems disconnected,” said UT-Knoxville’s Dr. Glenn Graber.
“But the appellate court in New York went a step further, saying there’s no difference in withdrawing life-support systems and inducing death with medication,” Graber said.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, in a lawsuit filed by three doctors challenging the ban on assisted suicides, ruled Tuesday they can prescribe life-ending drugs for terminally ill patients.
The issue, Graber said, is how far an individual’s freedom extends.
“The Supreme Court didn’t want to say we have the right to take (our) lives directly. The appellate court said we do.” It’s a question of active versus passive action, he said.
“Disconnecting a life-support system is passive in the sense that we withdraw technology necessary to sustain life. Whereas, prescribing a lethal drug is an active act,” Graber said.
“The New York case is certain to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court,” Graber said. “I’ve seen a developing trend in support of medically assisted suicides.”
A federal appeals court in California last month struck down a Washington state ban on doctor-assisted suicides. The court said terminally ill adults have a constitutional right to have a physician’s help in choosing how and when to die.
The appeals court in New York spoke of an equal rights issue, saying it would be discriminatory to refuse to let dying patients end their lives with lethal medication while allowing others to die by disconnecting their life-support systems.
“The (Supreme) court can’t duck this,” said University of Minnesota law professor Suzanna Sherry.
But Mary Cheh, a George Washington University law professor, said history suggests the court will take its time. “If they can avoid this, they will,” she said.
Contact: Glenn Graber (423-974-7213)