Chapter 11: Deliberate Termination of Life and Physician Assisted Suicide: Aid in Dying

Section 5. Case Study

Douglas Graudons

Case Study Module 11

Title: The Velma Howard Case (Assisted Suicide)

Description of the case: Mrs. Velma Howard, a 76-year-old female, was afflicted with ALS (Lou Gherig's Disease) and starting to deteriorate rapidly. With ALS the neurons in the anterior horn of the spinal cord become dysfunctional, and the person slowly looses the ability to use their muscles, and eventually dies from asphyxiation, because their diaphragm can no longer contract and they can no longer breathe. Mrs. Howard's arms were now completely non-functional, and her legs were getting quite bad as well. She began to think about accelerating her death, because the quality of her life was becoming less and less each day. After long debate, she decided she no longer wanted to live in the condition she was in. She made a three-minute audiotape describing her wishes and that she was doing this of her own free will. Velma and the rest of her family met up at a hotel in Joplin, Missouri on December 8, 1995 (Velma and her husband's 50th wedding anniversary). The next day, with some help from the book Fina

l Exit, she killed herself. A few days later Velma's husband and son were charged with a class B felony for assisting with her suicide. They were charged with assisting her suicide because prosecutors said that they provided her wit the materials she needed, because she could not allocate them herself because of her debilitated condition. Also they supposedly assisted her because they must have read her the instructions, because she could not have held the book and read them for herself. The law, under which the Howard's were arrested, was appealed and reached the second and ninth circuit court of appeals. These courts ruled, "States could not ban assisted suicide for a competent, terminally ill person." The case was appealed even further until it reached the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court overturned the lower courts decisions, and again made assisted suicide illegal. During the whole appeals process the prosecutor assigned to the Howard case decided to drop the charges and not prosecute the Howard'

s. Mr. Howard and his son were let go and allowed to continue with their lives.

URL's Describing the Case:


This site gives a complete overview of the Howard case.


This site offers a brief summary of the case.


This site contains an article describing the case and the legal ramifications following it.


This site contains an article describing why prosecutors dropped the case.


URL's Which Offer Ethical Commentary:


A site that talks about the ethics involved with assisted suicide.


A medical school web page offering ethical information to doctors on assisted suicide.


An article describing the ethical considerations of nurses involved with assisted suicide.


An article describing ethical dilemmas associated with physician-assisted suicide.


A position paper by the American Geriatrics Society describing the ethics of physician assisted suicide.


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Copyright Philip A. Pecorino 2002. All Rights reserved.

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