Alaska Supreme Court hears arguments on assisted suicide

Posted: Wednesday, November 15, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Alaska Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday on whether the state should allow physician-assisted suicide.

The case was brought by Kevin Sampson, an Anchorage man in his 40s who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1992. Sampson died in June.

The case was joined by a woman in her 60s, referred to in court documents as Jane Doe, who died of breast cancer in July.

''They were mentally competent, mature adults who loved life and had fought long and hard to live,'' said plaintiffs' lawyer Robert Wagstaff, who argued the case before the court.

A ruling is not expected for six months.

In Alaska, the state's ban on assisted suicide makes it a felony to help someone die.

In September, Wagstaff failed to convince the Superior Court that the state constitution's right of privacy clause prevents the state from blocking the terminally ill from deciding the time of their own deaths.

''We are saying the statute is way overbroad and should not apply to these people in these situations because they have a right to finish their lives as they see fit,'' Wagstaff said Tuesday.

Eric Johnson, chief assistant attorney general, said overturning the ban could lead to certain groups, such as the poor and elderly, being pressured into accepting physician-assisted suicide.

''The ramification is that a lot of people would be placed in a very vulnerable position,'' he said.

While the potential for abuse exists, Wagstaff said, there is no indication that the plaintiffs in the case were tricked, abused or coerced.

''We recognize that theoretically there could be some abuse,'' he said. ''We think those fears are exaggerated, but the state is free to regulate those potential abuses.''

The Alaska Catholic Conference, consisting of the three Roman Catholic bishops of Alaska in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, was one of several groups filing friend-of-the court briefs.

''The life of every person in the state of Alaska is treated as having inherent worth, and this tradition of equal rights under the law should continue,'' the bishops said.

Oregon is the only state that allows physician-assisted suicide. More than 40 people have used the law to end their lives since it passed in 1997. Maine voters on Nov. 7 rejected a bid to make that state the second one in the nation to allow physician-assisted suicide.



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