Fatal mercies: The right to die

Alan Meisel, the founder and director of the Center for Bioethics and Health Law at the University of Pittsburgh, said that that’s partly because “these kinds of things usually happen in secret.”

But that’s also because when they do come to light, the police and prosecutors exercise enormous discretion, knowing that there are all kinds of gray areas in which the law is a clumsy, crude instrument; that a jury may be loath to punish a gesture of apparent mercy; and that it’s not uncommon for death to be hastened by painkillers, even in hospitals.

Did Mancini break the law? If the accounts of both the hospice nurse and the police officer are accurate, probably so, but the Pennsylvania statute that forbids assisted suicide, like similar statutes in other states, is worded broadly and says nothing about what rises to the level of assistance.

That vagueness can be a blessing, allowing the police and prosecutors to filter the law through their own good judgment and sensitivity. No such filter has been applied here, at least based on the evidence presented at a preliminary court hearing early this month.