Is Assisting With Suicide a Crime?

There are numerous reasons why someone would want to end their life, ranging from severe depression to terminal illness, and in fact suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. While there are treatment options available for people with depression, what are the options for those who aren't expected to live much longer, perhaps suffering extraordinary pain? More to the point: is assisting with suicide a crime? If you're not a licensed physician, then assisting someone with suicide is most definitely a crime. But in states that have enacted "right to die" or "death with dignity" laws, eligible patients may request lethal drugs and administer them on their own.

This article lays out the legal parameters for assisted suicide, including what it means to assist someone with ending their life and the policy reasons for its prohibition in most states.

What's Considered Assisted Suicide?

Every state has a slightly different definition of what it means to assist a suicide and some states do not actually define it in their statutes. Generally, someone assists with a suicide when they:

  • Do some act which causes someone else to die, such as administering lethal doses of drugs;
  • Provide the drugs or tools necessary for someone else to commit suicide when they know those tools are likely to be used for suicide;
  • Advise someone else on the way to commit suicide; or
  • Persuade someone else to commit suicide.

Note that it is not considered assisted suicide to fail to resuscitate someone who is already dying. Individuals who do not wish to be kept alive through artificial means (such as feeding tubes and breathing machines) may state their wishes in a legally binding advance directive.

Why is Assisted Suicide Illegal?

There are two major public policy reasons why assisting with suicide, a crime in most states, is generally frowned upon. First, many states consider the preservation of life the highest priority. Consequently, in those states, anything that ends a human life is considered a crime, such as murder or manslaughter. But while the U.S. Supreme Court reached a similar conclusion -- ruling that there is no constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide -- states are free to enact such laws.

The second policy reason against assisted suicide is that it can be difficult in some cases to distinguish it from murder or manslaughter. States have an interest in ensuring that no one is forced to commit suicide through threats or deception. For this reason, the few states that currently allow physician assisted suicide (including Washington, Oregon, and Montana) have strict requirements and procedures that must be followed before any lethal medication is administered, including the following:

  • Patient must be a resident of the state.
  • Patient is mentally competent, terminally ill, and predicted to live only a short while (typically six months).
  • Patient's request was voluntary.
  • Patient is given multiple opportunities to change their mind.

Get Professional Legal Help With Your End-of-Life Concerns

While assisting with suicide is a crime in most states, the list of states allowing physician-assisted suicide continues to grow. But if a family member or loved one with a terminal illness doesn't want to be kept alive through artificial means, they have that choice. Regardless, be sure to consult with a health care law attorney if you have any additional questions about end-of-life care.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified health care attorney to help navigate legal issues around your health care.

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