10:14am

Mon February 6, 2012
The Two-Way

Georgia's Top Court Strikes Down State Law Limiting Assisted Suicide Ads

Although today's case doesn't directly touch on the matter of assisted suicide, the Georgia Supreme Court overturned a state law that tried to limit public advertising about the controversial practice and the number of cases.

Four members of Final Exit, an assisted suicide advocacy group, sued the state of Georgia, after they were arrested for helping an ill man take his life in Atlanta. One of the defendants was Dr. Lawrence Egbert, co-founder and the former medical director of Final Exit Network Inc., notes Bloomberg.

The Georgia law said anyone:

"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 a felony."

The justices were unanimous in their reversal.

Writing for the court, Justice Hugh Thompson noted the way state legislators put the law together left loopholes. It didn't directly criminalize assisted suicide, but punished would-be assistants for going about it in a specific way - using some kind of public speech, with public ads or offers of help. Other kinds of assisted suicides weren't criminalized. Thompson notes dryly:

"Had the State truly been interested in the preservation of human life, however, it could have imposed a ban on all assisted suicides with no restriction on protected speech whatsoever. Alternatively, the State could have sought to prohibit all offers to assist in suicide when accompanied by an overt act to accomplish that goal. The State here did neither."

Thompson concludes the law violated the free speech clauses of the U.S. and Georgia constitutions.

The case gained notoriety in Georgia after an agent infiltrated the Final Exit group, posing as a terminally ill client. Authorities say during the investigation, the Final Exit members helped another ill man take his life, according to AP. After their arrest, the Final Exit members pleaded not guilty and challenged the Georgia law in court. With today's ruling, the AP cites their defense attorneys who say the case is over.

Currently, three states permit physician-assisted suicide Montana, Oregon and Washington. Last month, Dr. Egbert spoke about his work (but not the Georgia case) on Tell Me More.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.