ASSISTED SUICIDE IN MINNESOTA
2016 MN Senate assisted suicide bill hearing
Minnesota law currently prohibits assisted suicide—when one person assists in the suicide of another, such as a doctor prescribing a lethal overdose of medication.
Our law, which dates to 1963 but was clarified and tightened in 1992, provides criminal penalties for anyone who “intentionally advises, encourages or assists another in taking the other’s own life” (Minnesota Statutes section 609.215, subdivision 1). Although the state Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that “advising” or “encouraging” suicide is protected speech under the First Amendment, the prohibition on “assisting” suicide remains in place.
But Minnesota’s protective law has been challenged over the last few years—both in court and in the Legislature.
Assisted suicide court cases
Two recent Minnesota court cases have concerned assisted suicide.
The first case involved William Melchert-Dinkel of Faribault, who was convicted in 2014 of assisting the suicide of a British man and attempting to assist in the suicide of a Canadian woman. He served six months in prison.
Melchert-Dinkel sought out people with depression online and tried to manipulate them into killing themselves. Posing as a compassionate, suicidal female nurse, he entered into fake suicide pacts with his victims and provided them with key information about how to take their own lives. He urged them to set up a webcam so that he could watch. He says he made about 10 suicide pacts and believes five of the people he targeted actually killed themselves.
Melchert-Dinkel was originally convicted in 2011 under Minnesota’s law against assisted suicide. But in 2014 the Supreme Court struck down the “advising” and “encouraging” provisions of the law. The case was then remanded to the lower court to determine whether Melchert-Dinkel “assisted” in suicide. He was convicted again on Sept. 9, 2014, and finally sentenced on Oct. 15.
The second court case involves Final Exit Network (FEN), an assisted suicide advocacy group that actively helps people take their own lives. FEN was convicted and fined in 2015 for breaking Minnesota’s law against assisted suicide. Members of FEN had flown to Minnesota and facilitated the suicide of a depressed Apple Valley woman using helium and a plastic bag.
Final Exit appealed the conviction, aiming to defeat Minnesota’s protective law in court, but the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the conviction in 2016.
Assisted suicide legislation
As part of a recent wave of assisted suicide efforts initiated by the group Compassion and Choices, legislation was introduced in Minnesota in 2016 to legalize assisted suicide.
The bill (S.F. 1880), authored by Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, would have authorized doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medication for patients to intentionally end their own lives. The Senate Health, Human Services and Housing committee took up the bill on March 16, 2016. The hearing stretched more than two hours until Eaton abruptly decided to pull the bill from consideration because it did not have enough support to pass.
The committee first heard testimony from Dan Diaz, husband of the late Brittany Maynard, the California woman whose heavily publicized death by assisted suicide helped spark the recent nationwide campaign for legalization. But more than 100 opponents of the bill attended the hearing, and 17 different people—physicians, nurses, professors, attorneys, and disability rights advocates—testified against it. They effectively made the case that assisted suicide threatens the lives of vulnerable people.
“We have an obligation to the terminally ill and their loved ones. But this bill will not help that cause,” testified Thomas Nobrega, M.D., a St. Paul cardiologist. “This bill is about giving a patient the means to die by a drug overdose. It creates an irreconcilable conflict between the doctor as a compassionate guide and healer, and the motivation to expedite death.”
Kathy Ware, R.N., is a disability advocate and mother of a son with disabilities. “People wouldn’t pursue assisted suicide if they had the help and care they needed for their loved one,” she told the committee. “We in the disability community are not asking for pity. We want help and we want to be treated with value.”
Elizabeth Bakewicz, who suffers from terminal brain cancer, begged the committee members to reject assisted suicide. “Under this bill I am treated as nothing but a list of burdens. But I am a human being,” she said.
Despite the failure of the bill, the threat of assisted suicide in Minnesota remains. Legislation to legalize assisted suicide will likely be introduced again in the future.
Minnesotans Against Assisted Suicide (MNAAS), a project of MCCL, is a coalition created to oppose the legalization of assisted suicide in Minnesota. More information is available on the MNAAS website.