By J. DeVoy
While illegal in 39 states, assisted suicide in not illegal in Georgia. The state attempted to create the illusion that the practice was illegal, however, by outlawing public advertisement of assisted suicide services through OCGA § 16-5-5(b). The statute did not forbid all offers to provide assisted suicide services, but only those publicly advertised. Today, the Georgia Supreme Court struck down the law as an impermissible content-based restriction on free speech. Final Exit Network, Inc. v. Georgia, Case No. S11A1960 (Ga. Feb. 6, 2012).
Applying both the Georgia Constitution and the U.S. Constitution, the Georgia Supreme Court subjected § 16-5-5(b) to strict scrutiny. Succinctly stating the position of its opinion, the Georgia Court wrote:
It is not all assisted suicides which are criminalized but only those which include a public advertisement or offer to assist. This distinction takes the statute out of the realm of content neutral regulations and renders it a selective restraint on speech with a particular content. See Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U. S. 781, 791 (109 SC 2746, 105 LE2d 661) (1989) (“The principal inquiry in determining content neutrality . . . is whether the government has adopted a regulation of speech because of a disagreement with the message it conveys.”) (source.)
The court goes on to further eviscerate the state’s justification for banning advertising of assisted suicides:
The State argues §16-5-5 (b) is narrowly tailored because it reaches only those who publicly offer to assist in suicide and then, in fact, undertake an overt act to accomplish that goal. Had the State truly been interested in the preservation of human life, however, it could have imposed a ban on all assisted 5suicides with no restriction on protected speech whatsoever. Alternatively, the State could have sought to prohibit all offers to assist in suicide when accompanied by an overt act to accomplish that goal. The State here did neither. (source.)
The Final Exit Network decision is a very short but devastating opinion. It also raises a number of concerns about the social and legal status of suicide in America. For states with significant elderly populations – Florida, Nevada and Arizona come to mind – the manner by which they restrict assisted suicide may come under attack. A full legal ban on all forms of suicide and assisted suicide, premised on the value of human life, likely would withstand constitutional attack. If this goal is achieved from an outside angle as Georgia attempted, though, the laws may not withstand judicial scrutiny.
Being old – and especially extremely old – is a miserable existence. I support strong penalties for murder and taking the lives of other human beings. But when someone can no longer walk, can barely talk, has had their mental faculties degraded by alzheimer’s (or just old age), and has regressed to the point of requiring diapers to avoid daily humiliation, there is a serious question as to what value and dignity that life has left. Would it be so bad if we allowed them to choose a time and place to bring about the end, rather than forcing them through years of semi-conscious misery to vindicate what are ultimately religious principles? The same is true of the very ill – if it’s clear that the much needed liver or kidney transplant is not going to arrive in time, why be subjected to a degrading life of seizures, dialysis and pain?
The same arguments about medicinal marijuana, which liberals and libertarians are so fond of – that it helps people, and it does not directly harm anyone else – are equally applicable to suicide. For many people, suicide is the best and possibly only way out from under whatever dilemmas are facing them, whether medical, psychological or financial. By outlawing suicide, those who seek an exit are forced to inhumane and painful ends, using guns and pills to bring on a quick ending – and facing even worse consequences if they fail. The unreasonable social shame surrounding suicide forces people who ultimately choose this route to live longer, more unpleasant lives, enduring the harsh scrutiny of others in the process.
Central to the concept of liberty is one’s right to do what he or she pleases until it runs into the rights of others. Your life should, to the fullest extent possible, belong to you, which includes the way it is lived as well as the way it is ended. The broad sweep of laws and public attitude against suicide is inimical to a truly free society. Moreover, it is hypocritical for the United States to tout its position on freedom and yet take such a draconian position on suicide, assisted or otherwise. While debates rage on about rights to own guns and receive healthcare, the right for citizens to have full control over their lives, including ending them without stigma or obstruction, has been totally overlooked.