NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A former Democratic gubernatorial candidate who is terminally ill is asking a state court in Tennessee to declare he has a right to end his life when he wants and on his own terms.
A lawyer for longtime civil rights activist and former Democratic candidate for governor John Jay Hooker argued Friday that the state has no legitimate interest in forcing a terminally ill person to undergo prolonged and painful death. Hooker, 84, has terminal cancer.
Attorney Hal Hardin asked the Nashville-based court to declare that a person has a fundamental right to die with a doctor's help under the Tennessee Constitution.
Hardin, who also represents the doctors who have expressed a willingness to prescribe Hooker a lethal dosage of painkillers, added that state law on the subject is contradictory and unconstitutionally vague.
State law allows a person to refuse end-of-life care. It also allows a physician to prescribe drugs that hasten death, as long as the primary purpose of those drugs is to alleviate pain. That includes something called palliative sedation, which Hardin described as a doctor keeping a patient unconscious with morphine while he or she dies from lack of food and water.
"The family comes around for days or even weeks and watches this pitiful, sorrowful tragedy play out," Hardin said.
Like physician-assisted suicide, a physician providing palliative sedation provides a patient with the means of death "albeit in slow motion," he said.
The state of Tennessee is asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit. The attorney representing the state, Steven Hart, argued that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled there is no fundamental right to assisted suicide and that states have a legitimate interest in preserving life.
"In this compelling state interest to preserve lives, we do not value different types of lives differently," Hart said. The life of a terminally ill person is "just as valuable as that of a healthy 20-year-old."
Hart argued that the state legislature or a public referendum, not the courtroom, are the proper forums for deciding a whether physicians should be allowed to provide lethal dosages of drugs to dying patients.
Oregon and Washington both allow physician-assisted suicide, but that is part of a statutory and regulatory scheme, not a fundamental right, Hart said.
Vermont also has a law allowing physician-assisted suicide, and in Montana the state Supreme Court has said it is not illegal, although there is no law specifically allowing it.
Only one state court in New Mexico has ever found a fundamental right to assisted suicide, but that decision is currently under appeal, Hart said.
Hooker is also behind an effort in the Tennessee General Assembly to pass legislation allowing assisted suicide. Hooker has fought for civil and constitutional rights for 60 years but says he believes this effort is the most important thing he has ever done.
Speaking to reporters after the hearing, he said, "It's just so morally right."