Is Assisted Suicide Legal?

Assisted suicide is a controversial topic, but what exactly does the law say? Although there is much debate about the morality of helping a terminally ill person end their life, the fact remains that it is illegal in most states.  

In 1997, the United States Supreme Court ruled that there is no Constitutional right to assisted suicide, leaving states free to pass laws specifically prohibiting it. Under most state laws, helping someone commit suicide is a felony.

Five states and the District of Columbia have passed laws legalizing assisted suicide in certain limited circumstances. Under Oregon's Death with Dignity Act, physicians can prescribe lethal medication that will allow terminally ill individuals to end their lives. There are very specific steps--including waiting periods and release forms--that must be followed before the medication can be prescribed. California, Colorado, Vermont and Washington have similar laws. Colorado's measure was passed by ballot initiative on November 8, 2016, and Washington, D.C.'s law became effective February 18, 2017, when Congress's 30-day deadline to overturn it expired. 

The law in a seventh jurisdiction, Montana, is less clear. In 2009, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that physicians may prescribe medication to help terminally ill individuals end their lives, but lawmakers so far have not enacted a law that would allow this. Two bills regarding assisted suicide were introduced in the state legislature during the 2011 session, but neither made it out of committee.  One bill would have provided protection to doctors who assist in suicides, while the other would have banned assisted suicide.

A judge in New Mexico has also ruled that terminally ill patients have a constitutional right to "aid in dying." State law makes it a felony to assist a suicide, but although the law applied, the judge found that the terminally ill patient's constitutional right overruled the law. It is unclear whether the ruling applies statewide or only in the county in which the judge made the ruling.

Read more on end-of-life decision-making.