Hooker asks Tennessee high court to take up aid-in-dying case

Friday, October 16, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 42

NASHVILLE (AP) - A former Democratic gubernatorial nominee who is terminally ill is asking the Tennessee Supreme Court to take up the question of whether he has a constitutional right to die with the aid of a doctor.

John Jay Hooker wants Tennessee to allow physicians to prescribe lethal doses of painkillers to their mentally competent dying patients.

A trial court judge last month ruled against Hooker on several grounds. That included a ruling that Tennessee's statute making assisted suicide illegal does not violate the constitutional rights either of Hooker or the three physicians who are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

In a motion filed Tuesday, Hooker's attorneys ask the state Supreme Court to skip the normal appeals process and take up the case immediately. They argue the matter is urgent because Hooker is dying. The 85-year-old who was the Democratic nominee for governor in 1970 and has spent six decades fighting for civil and c onstitutional rights says he has terminal cancer.

"Appellant Hooker fears an excruciatingly painful, prolonged, and undignified death," the motion read. "...Physician 'aid-in-dying' is the medical practice of providing a mentally competent, terminally ill adult with a prescription for medication that the patient may choose to self-administer in order to bring about a peaceful death." The motion added that if "Hooker's pain becomes unbearable, he will want this option."

Opponents of aid-in-dying attended the trial court hearing on the issue and an earlier legislative hearing on aid-in-dying legislation that Hooker is supporting. They warned that allowing doctors to prescribe terminally ill patients lethal doses of pills could lead to abuse by caregivers who no longer want to take care of ailing relatives.

Doctors in Oregon, Washington, Vermont and Montana can prescribe life-ending drugs, and California lawmakers passed legislation last month that would allow terminally ill patients to legally end their lives.

Hooker's attorneys claim Tennessee law on end-of life care is both contradictory and unconstitutionally vague. It allows a physician to prescribe drugs that hasten death, as long as the primary purpose of those drugs is to alleviate pain.

Hooker's attorneys say that leaves physicians in the untenable position of not knowing whether they will be prosecuted for their decisions. And they say the trial court's ruling only sowed further confusion among doctors over what end-of-life care is allowed.

In the motion asking the Supreme Court to hear the case, the attorneys write, "Whether this Court eventually rules in favor of the Appellants or the Appellees, it is in the interest of all Tennesseans that the issues be finally and quickly resolved."