Death With Dignity in Tennessee

Tennessee is considering an aid-in-dying bill that would allow terminally ill patients to request life-ending medication.

By , MSLIS · Long Island University

In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of states considering death with dignity laws. Sometimes called "medical aid in dying," "assisted suicide," or "right to die" initiatives, these laws make it possible for terminally ill patients to use prescribed medication to end their lives peacefully rather than suffering a painful and protracted death.

The catalyst for greater national attention to this issue was 29-year-old Brittany Maynard, a woman diagnosed with terminal brain cancer who moved from California to Oregon to end her life in 2014. Maynard chose Oregon because California had not yet passed its aid-in-dying law, and Oregon is one of just a few other states to allow terminally ill patients to legally end their lives.

Tennessee's 2024 Death With Dignity Bill

Maynard's decision and the resulting publicity spurred many state legislatures to introduce death with dignity bills. In Tennessee, the legislative push for aid in dying was led by longtime Tennessee politician John Jay Hooker, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer in January 2015 and died from the disease a year later. In March 2015 and again in 2017, legislators in the Tennessee General Assembly introduced aid-in-dying bills that failed to pass. Now in the 2024 session, lawmakers are considering another death with dignity bill, numbered HB1710 in the house of representatives and SB2258 in the state senate, that would allow terminally ill patients who meet certain requirements to request life-ending medication.

This article first clarifies some confusing language related to death with dignity laws and then sets out the basics of Tennessee's proposed law.

Death With Dignity, Assisted Suicide, Right to Die: What's In a Name?

"Death with dignity" and "medical aid in dying: are two of the most commonly accepted phrases describing the process by which a terminally ill person ingests prescribed medication to hasten death. Many people still think of this process as "assisted suicide" or "physician assisted suicide." However, proponents of death with dignity argue that the term "suicide" doesn't apply to terminally ill people who would prefer to live but, facing certain death within months, choose a more gentle way of dying. In fact, Tennessee's proposed law states that terminating one's life under the law is not suicide. (See SB2258, Section 68-11-2416 and HB1710, Section 68-11-2416.)

Increasingly, health organizations are turning away from the term "suicide" to describe a terminally ill patient's choice to reduce the suffering of an inevitable death. The phrase "aid in dying" is becoming a more accepted way to refer to this process.

You may also see the phrase "right to die" used in place of "death with dignity" or "medical aid in dying." However, "right to die" is more accurately used in the context of directing one's own medical care—that is, refusing life-sustaining treatment such as a respirator or feeding tubes when permanently unconscious or close to death. You can provide your own health care directions by completing a Tennessee advance health care directive. (See the end of this article for more information.)

An Overview of Tennessee's Aid in Dying Act

Tennessee's proposed law is modeled closely on Oregon's Death With Dignity Act, which took effect in 1997. If Tennessee's law passes, a patient requesting aid-in-dying medication will have to be:

  • at least 18 years old
  • a Tennessee resident
  • mentally capable of making and communicating health care decisions, and
  • diagnosed with a terminal disease that will result in death within six months.

A patient who meets the requirements above will be prescribed aid-in-dying medication only if:

  • The patient makes two verbal requests to their doctor, at least 15 days apart. (However, if the 15-day waiting period can be waived if the doctor confirms that the patient is fewer than 15 days from death when making the initial verbal request.)
  • The patient gives a written request to the doctor, signed in front of two qualified, adult witnesses. (The law sets out the specific form that the patient must use.)
  • The prescribing doctor and one other doctor confirm the patient's diagnosis and prognosis.
  • The prescribing doctor and one other doctor determine that the patient is capable of making medical decisions.
  • The patient has a psychological examination, if either doctor feels the patient's judgment is impaired.
  • The prescribing doctor confirms that the patient is not being coerced or unduly influenced by others when making the request.
  • The prescribing doctor informs the patient of any feasible alternatives to the medication, including care to relieve pain and keep the patient comfortable.
  • The prescribing doctor asks the patient to notify their next of kin of the prescription request. (The doctor cannot require the patient to notify anyone, however.)
  • The prescribing doctor offers the patient the opportunity to withdraw the request for aid-in-dying medication before granting the prescription.

To use the medication, the patient must be able to ingest it on their own. A doctor or other person who administers the lethal medication may face criminal charges.

You can read the full text of Tennessee's death with dignity bill on the Tennessee General Assembly's website.

Learn More

To find out more about the history and current status of medical aid in dying laws in the United States, visit the website of the Death With Dignity National Center.

For information about appointing a health care agent and making known your own wishes for medical care at the end of life, see the Living Wills & Medical Powers of Attorney section of Nolo.com.

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