The law that was struck down Feb. 6 was enacted in 1994 in reaction to Dr. Jack Kevorkian's assisted suicides of the 1990s. The statute that the Georgia Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional reads:
"Any person who publicly advertises, offers, or holds himself or herself out as offering that he or she will intentionally and actively assist another person in the commission of suicide and commits any overt act to further that purpose is guilty of felony and, upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by imprisonment for not less than one nor more than five years."
In February 2009, four members of Final Exit Network, an assisted suicide advocacy group, were arrested for allegedly assisting 58-year-old John Celmer of Cumming, Ga., in killing himself two years after being diagnosed with throat and mouth cancer. Interestingly, court documents quoted his doctor as saying he had made a "remarkable recovery" and was cancer-free at the time of the suicide.
In April 2010, the Final Exit Network defendants pleaded not guilty to charges of assisted suicide. The defendants later moved to dismiss the indictment on grounds that the Georgia statute on assisted suicide is unconstitutional under the First Amendment. The law violated the right to free speech, they argued, because Georgia law does not prohibit all assisted suicides, only those in which assistance had been publicly advertised or promoted.
The state Supreme Court, in ruling 7-0 for the defendants, noted that the state could have declared assisted suicide a criminal offense, as most other states have done. Had it done so, the law likely would have been upheld.
Ray Newman, the Georgia Baptist Convention's public policy advocate, voiced disappointment over the ruling, observing, "Apparently the way the Georgia law was written only dealt with the promotion by a group that would assist someone who wanted to commit suicide."
Dan Becker, president of Georgia Right to Life, warned, " Supreme Court decision striking down our pitifully weak assisted suicide ban will open the door for Georgia to become a haven for merchants of death unless we act."
Becker added, "We understand the pain of terminal illness, but taking a human life in the name of mercy or compassion is morally wrong. We should concentrate on providing help to those in desperate situations, not kill them."
Wesley Smith, writing for the National Review, noted, "Georgia's legislature had better remedy this fast or Georgia could become known as the Assisted Suicide State -- all comers welcome -- because as of now, anyone would seem to be able to assist any suicide, in any manner, for any reason in Georgia, and for compensation. That's the consequence of incompetence in legislation."
J. Gerald Harris is editor of The Christian Index (www.christianindex.org), newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention.
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