Death With Dignity in Tennessee

Tennessee failed to pass a death with dignity law that would have allowed terminally ill patients to request life-ending medication.

Recently, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of states considering death with dignity laws. Sometimes called “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 2017 Death With Dignity Act

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, legislators in the Tennessee General Assembly introduced an aid-in-dying bill that failed to pass. In the 2017 session, lawmakers considered a similar bill, called the Tennessee Death With Dignity Act (numbered HB1394 in the house of representatives and SB1378 in the state senate). It, too, failed to pass. If it had been approved, the law would have functioned much like Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act, allowing terminally ill patients who met certain requirements to request and use life-ending medication.

Advocating for a Death With Dignity Act in Tennessee

Citizen groups are continuing to work to legalize aid in dying in Tennessee. If choice at the end of life is important to you, here are some things you can do:

  • Contact your representatives in the General Assembly and encourage them to support death with dignity in Tennessee.
  • Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper.
  • Tell your family, friends, health care providers, and others why you believe terminally ill patients should be allowed to choose aid in dying.
  • Search for—or start—a community advocacy group. The Compassion & Choices website can help you connect with others in your area.

Making a Will or Advance Directive

“Death with dignity” is one of the most commonly accepted phrases describing the process by which a terminally ill person ingests prescribed medication to hasten death. You may also see the phrase “right to die” used in place of “death with dignity.” 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. In Tennessee or any other state, you have a right to provide such directions or give any other health care instructions by completing an advance health care directive.

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

Learn More

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

Updated October 16, 2018

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