Let Me Kill Myself

Before he dies of Lou Gehrig's disease, Phil Snaith wants to accomplish one final goal: force the state to allow assisted suicides

For a brief moment in 1997, physician-assisted suicide was legal in one Florida county, for one terminally ill patient.

Charles Hall, a restaurateur who contracted HIV from a blood transfusion in the 1980s, won the right to die from a Palm Beach County circuit court judge. Hall and two other dying men asked the court to allow Dr. Cecil McIver to give them lethal injections. Doing so would violate Florida's 132-year-old law against abetting a suicide. The three asked the court for an injunction so that McIver would not be prosecuted.

A man in full: Phil Snaith in the chair in which he hopes to expire
A man in full: Phil Snaith in the chair in which he hopes to expire

They argued that a law preventing assisted suicide violated Article One, Section 23 of the Florida Constitution: "Every natural person has the right to be let alone and free from governmental intrusion into the person's private life except as otherwise provided herein…."

By the time the case came to trial, two of the defendants were already dead. Only 35-year-old Hall remained, and he was in a wheelchair, had sores all over his body, and was legally blind. A psychiatrist judged him mentally competent in his request for assistance in dying.

After a six-day bench trial that included twelve expert witnesses -- six for each side -- Judge S. Joseph Davis Jr. ruled in favor of Hall. He wrote: "The case poses the question of whether a competent adult, who is terminally ill, imminently dying, and acting under no undue influence, has a constitutional right to choose to hasten his own death by seeking and obtaining from his physician a fatal dose of prescription drugs and then subsequently administering such drugs to himself. With respect to the facts of this case, the Court answers the question in the affirmative."

Palm Beach State Attorney Barry Krischer appealed the same day. Eventually the Florida Supreme Court overturned Davis' ruling. Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Grimes argued that physician-assisted suicide directly contradicts the ethics and integrity of the medical profession.

Hall died of AIDS complications in 1998.

Had the ruling stood, Dr. Cecil McIver was ready to carry out Hall's request. Assisted suicide is an issue he's thought about a lot in five decades of practice.

"World War II, during the bombing raids on London, there was one raid in particular I remember seeing very tragic things," he recalls over a cup of Jamaican coffee at his Hobe Sound home. "The people being brought into the hospital, they had terrible injuries. We would triage them, and the doctor would have three choices: take the patient right to the emergency room, take the patient to a ward and get to him or her as soon as we could, or else say there is nothing we can possibly do for this patient. And then what do you do about this patient? Do you prolong their suffering? Actually, what we did was give them sufficient doses of morphine and kept giving it to them until they died."

A polite, thoughtful British gentleman, McIver, age 77, gives the impression he's a man who has asked himself difficult questions and is satisfied with his answers. Many of the patients injured in the bombings were terminal, and McIver helped them to die.

"I agonized over that," he says. "I think any sensitive person would. And I realized we had not done anything wrong. I was not responsible. They were people past help. And sometimes to relieve pain and suffering was the primary goal, and if it cut short life, so be it."

By the time the case arrived at the Florida Supreme Court, Krischer v. McIver had a score of amicus curiae briefs attached. Groups from the National Legal Center For the Medically Disabled to the National Right to Life Committee all registered support for maintaining the ban on assisted suicide.

Tewannah Aman, director of the Broward County chapter of Florida Right to Life, says her organization got involved because physician-assisted suicide is akin to murder. "We believe in compassionate care to help the individual through whatever means," says Aman, "but we don't believe a physician should have the right to take a life."

Diane Coleman, founder and president of Not Dead Yet, a Chicago-area advocacy group for the disabled, is a strident opponent of assisted suicide, claiming it amounts to discrimination against an already marginalized segment of society. "A healthy person's suicide is seen as a tragedy, and certainly everybody knows when someone is suicidal you don't say jump when they are standing on the ledge. Why are so many people cavalierly talking about carving out an exception to that for people with disabilities?"

The Oregon law that makes assisted suicide legal includes a set of standards delineating who is and isn't eligible to die with a doctor's help. Candidates must be legal residents of Oregon, at least 18 years old, have a terminal illness and a life expectancy of six months or less, and make one written and two verbal requests. A second physician must confirm the diagnosis, and if either the primary or consulting doctor suspects the patient might be depressed, they can order a psychiatric test. The patient must also be made aware of other options, such as hospice.

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