High court rules against assisted-suicide case

Posted: Sunday, September 23, 2001

JUNEAU -- Alaska's constitutional rights to privacy and liberty do not offer protection for physicians who participate in assisted suicide, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday.

In handing down it's ruling, the state High Court noted that Alaska laws have taken a broad view of personal liberties and the right to privacy, but that physician-assisted suicide goes too far.

Or at least too far for the courts to decide.

''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 a unanimous opinion.

The case was brought by Kevin Sampson, an Anchorage man diagnosed with AIDS in 1992. It was joined by a female physician in her 60s, identified only as Jane Doe, who suffered from breast cancer. Both died last year.

Superior Court Judge Eric Sanders dismissed their suit seeking an exemption from Alaska law making physician-assisted suicide a felony.

A doctor who participates in a suicide can be charged with manslaughter under Alaska law.

The state Supreme Court upheld that decision, finding that Alaska's privacy clause bars government restriction of personal privacy 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. Alaska lawmakers rejected a similar proposal in 1996.

The case sparked interest from religious, ethical and medical advocate organizations, including the Alaska Catholic Conference which heralded the ruling. Ten such groups filed briefs in the case.

''The judges have realized that society's obligation to foster protection and compassion for the sick is not prohibited by our constitution,'' said executive director Robert B. Flint.

Attorneys for Sampson and Doe could not be reached for comment Friday.

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