A U.S. federal appeals court has struck down a 140-year-old Washington state law prohibiting doctor-assisted suicide.

In an 8-3 decision March 6 the 9th US. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Constitution protects an individual’s “right to die.”  It was the first time a federal appeals court has ruled on the issue.  The decision is likely to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court ruled that Washington state law infringed the rights of terminally ill, mentally competent adults who seek a doctor’s support in ending their lives.  “A competent, terminally ill adult, having lived nearly the full measure of his life, has a strong liberty interest in choosing a dignified and humane death rather than being reduced at the end of his existence to a childlike state of helplessness,” Judge Stephen Reinhardt said in the majority opinion.

The decision, which is binding on nine states in the western U. S. could lead to the end to similar assisted suicide bans in Oregon and throughout the country.  U.S. opinion however, is clearly divided on the issue.  In February, the New Hampshire legislature rejected a bill permitting assisted suicide, and the American Medical Association has come out strongly against the procedure.

Anti-euthanasia activist Wesley Smith of Oakland, California described the court of appeal decision as “personal opinion masquerading as jurisprudence.”  Although he anticipates the decision will be reversed on appeal he is concerned about a growing acceptance of euthanasia within the legal community.

In Canada, active euthanasia and assisted suicide are still offenses under the Criminal Code.  Pro-family groups however, are concerned that the U.S. court decision reveals an increasing tolerance for assisted-suicide measures.  Anti-euthanasia groups are also concerned about letting the courts determine public policy.