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Is Assisted Suicide Legal in Tennessee?

Posted by Nina Whitehurst | Jul 30, 2020 | 2 Comments

Occasionally we are asked whether assisted suicide is allowed in Tennessee.  It is a fair question, because "helping" someone to take his or her own life IS considered murder in every state, absent a statute to the contrary.

There are only a handful of states that have statutes that allow assisted suicide.  As of this writing (July 30, 2020) those states are Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado, Maine, Vermont, and New Jersey.  A few other states are considering such legislation, but Tennessee is not one of them.  In the states that do allow assisted suicide, a doctor's prescription is required and usually there are usually at least two appointments required before the prescription is given, the patient must be expected to die within six months, the patient must be competent, the patient must self-administer the prescription, and the prescription is very expensive (around $4,000!).

Before I continue, please know that I totally understand both sides of this controversial issue.  I completely respect the people who are opposed to suicide, whether assisted or totally self-administered, usually based upon religious convictions.   And, I completely understand the feelings of those who do not wish to continue living if they are suffering in terrible pain or no longer have any quality of life.  Many people in this camp are also very concerned about not wanting to burden their families.

Usually when I get the question it is not from someone who has just been diagnosed with a terrible illness.  More often the question comes from some worried about dementia or Alzheimer's Disease.  Well, the first thing people need to understand is even if they live in a state with a "Death with Dignity" or similar assisted suicide enabling legislation, that will not do them any good when it comes to hastening death in order to avoid a prolonged existence with dementia or Alzheimer's Disease.  That is because the assisted suicide statutes only allow a doctor to provide the prescription if the patient is expected to die anyway within six months.  Typically, neither dementia or Alzheimer's Disease, in and of itself, carries such a death sentence.  But more importantly, the patient must request the prescription while he or she is still competent.  It is theoretically possible to still be competent while having just been diagnosed with early onset of dementia or Alzheimer's Disease, but then the patient would normally still have well more than six months to live.

And you cannot authorize the agent designated in your Medical Power of Attorney or Advance Directive to help you along to the "other side" (because, again, that would be murder), so what to do? 

The best you can do, in my opinion, is very clearly explain to your health care agent what level of care you want if you become impaired by physical or mental decline.  Usually we use a living will to spell this out for physical decline and a dementia directive to spell this out for mental decline, but you really need to discuss this with your healthcare agent eyeball-to-eyeball as well.  A "lower" level of care, as spelled out by you, might not necessarily hasten your demise, but at least it will not unnecessarily prolong your life.   And if prefer to live as long as possible, you will want to spell that out as well, so that your healthcare agent doesn't make the wrong assumptions about what you would want.

We can help you put your wishes in writing.  Call us anytime as 931-250-8585.

About the Author

Nina Whitehurst

Attorney at Law Nina has been practicing law for over 30 years in the areas of estate planning, real estate and business law She is currently licensed in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon and Tennessee. Her Martindale-Hubbell attorney rating is the highest achievable: 5 stars in peer...


Nina Whitehurst Reply

Posted May 10, 2021 at 07:52:13

A Dementia Directive might have helped. Just telling people one’s wishes is not as as good (or enforceable) as putting it in writing.

Maire Heathcock Reply

Posted Feb 17, 2023 at 08:03:00

I have stage 4 of active destructive RA, when asked how many stages doc said 5, I asked what happens in stage 5, he said you die

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