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Anastasia Toufexis

DANIAL DANZER KNEW HE WAS DYING of AIDS. Of all the fears he faced, losing his mind was the worst. When his faculties started to fade, he wanted to hasten his death. But his doctor could not help; Washington State law prohibited physicians from assisting the terminally ill in committing suicide. So Danzer stopped taking his insulin. After five days of convulsions, he finally died. Says his partner, Jeff Halsey: “He might have been spared some of his greatest pain and retained some of his dignity if he and his physician had received help from a compassionate code of laws.”

Last week a federal appeals court moved to provide that aid. In a groundbreaking decision, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Washington State’s prohibition of doctor-assisted suicide. Writing for the majority in the 8-to-3 decision, Judge Stephen Reinhardt said, “There is a constitutionally protected liberty interest in determining the time and manner of one’s own death” that can outweigh the state’s interest in preserving life. Washington’s law, ruled the court, violates the right of mentally competent, terminally ill adults to choose “a dignified and humane death.”

The decision, the first by a federal appeals court on assisted suicide, dramatically extends the right to die. “It advances it not by steps but by leaps,” observes law professor Alan Meisel of the University of Pittsburgh. While previous decisions, most notably the Supreme Court’s in the 1990 Cruzan case, have held that terminally ill patients can refuse medical treatment, the new ruling declares that they also have a right to seek assistance in dying from doctors–and pharmacists and family members.

Last week’s ruling is expected to have an impact beyond the Ninth Circuit’s nine-state jurisdiction. At least 33 states have laws forbidding assisted suicide, and many of them are under challenge. Clearly the decision is in tune with public opinion. Two days after it was issued, a Michigan jury in the second assisted-suicide trial of Dr. Jack Kevorkian reached the same verdict as the jury in his first trial: not guilty.

–By Anastasia Toufexis. Reported by Sylvester Monroe/Los Angeles and Andrea Sachs/New York

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