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Dr Philip Nitschke holds up a drug testing kit which is used as part of assisted suicides following a workshop on the subject on May 5, 2009 in Bournemouth, England.
Last week, George Taylor was given a two-day jail sentence and three years probation for killing his wife, Gewynn. The couple, both in their 80’s and with unspecified medical problems, had wanted to die together. After suffocating his wife with a plastic bag, Taylor attempted to do the same to himself, but failed. He pleaded guilty to the felony of assisted suicide. The outcome was the result of leniency on the part of both the prosecutor and the judge – and it’s not an isolated case.
There have been several recent instances of elderly people who made their wish to die known, and were aided in carrying out that wish by spouses, friends, or family members. Although doctor-assisted suicide is allowed in three states, California is not one of them; ending a life is clearly against the law. Yet assisted-suicide cases rarely come to trial. Prosecutors, feeling that jurors will be sympathetic to, say, a grieving, elderly person who has helped an ailing spouse to end his or her suffering, prefer to bring lesser charges.
Is this a case of humanity overstepping the law? Should “helping” someone to die bring a lighter sentence than other types of killing? Should our laws be changed to allow for helping a loved one who is determined to end his life?
Robert Weisberg, Professor of Law and Director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center at Stanford Law