Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Judge rules against legalizing assisted suicide in Tennessee

Lucas L. Johnson II, Associated Press, and Stacey Barchenger, The Tennessean6:12 p.m. CDT September 29, 2015

A former Democratic gubernatorial candidate who is terminally ill cannot die by assisted suicide, a judge ruled Tuesday, saying doctors engaging in such a practice are committing "criminal conduct."

John Jay Hooker has terminal cancer and has doctors who have expressed a willingness to prescribe him a lethal dosage of painkillers.

State law allows a person to refuse end-of-life care, but so-called aid-in-dying or assisted suicide is illegal in Tennessee. Doctors in Oregon, Washington, Vermont and Montana can prescribe life-ending drugs, and California lawmakers passed legislation earlier this month that would allow terminally ill patients to legally end their lives.

In Tennessee doctors sought protection from prosecution if Hooker was prescribed the drugs.

Chancellor Carol McCoy ruled against the doctors and Hooker. She said they "do not have standing to bring this action."

"The aid-in-dying prescription involves a script for a lethal dose of medication to cause quick death, not to provide palliative care to relieve physical pain and discomfort, as is allowed," McCoy said. "If the physicians intend to provide lethal drugs to end their patients' lives, they engage in criminal conduct."

Hooker, who has fought for civil and constitutional rights for 60 years, is not giving up his fight because of the judge's ruling.

"It is a sad day for the rule of law, and that the judge has claimed that I and others who have a terminal illness don’t have legal standing to raise the question about the right of the state to determine whether or not you can take your own life," he said. "The fact is, that’s an error."

Hooker's attorney, Hal Hardin, argued in court that a person has a fundamental right to die with a doctor's help under the Tennessee Constitution.

Hardin has said state law is contradictory and unconstitutionally vague, but McCoy disagreed.

Hooker is taking an experimental medication to combat his cancer so he can continue to fight against Tennessee's law criminalizing assisted suicide, he said. He said he feels like a soldier.

Last week, Hooker appeared in a wheelchair before the Davidson County Grand Jury. He presented his case, and asked the grand jury to request the state legislature to support his request to end his life with the help of a willing doctor.

The jury issued its report earlier this week. It showed support for aid-in-dying legislation.

"This Grand Jury overwhelming supports Mr. Hooker's desire to have the laws of Tennessee amended to permit a severely ill patient to have OPTION to end his or her life, thus ending all the pain and suffering for the patient and his or her family," the report reads.

Hooker said he has forwarded the grand jury's report to the members of the Tennessee General Assembly.

Reach Stacey Barchenger at 615-726-8968 or on Twitter @sbarchenger.