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Is mercy killing or euthanasia legal in Florida? Here's what you need to know

C. A. Bridges
The Daytona Beach News-Journal

In January 2023 Ellen Gilland, 76, of New Smyrna Beach, shot her husband to death.

According to police, he asked her to, because he couldn't do it himself.

"Apparently because (her husband) was terminally ill, they had a conversation about it and they actually planned this approximately three weeks ago, that if he continued to take a turn for the worse, that … he wanted her to end this," Daytona Beach Police Chief Jakari Young said at a press conference.

Gilland was taken into custody after a standoff with police and has been charged with first-degree murder and three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, police said.

Mercy killing is not legal in Florida but there is an increasing push to allow terminally-ill patients to choose when they can die. Florida has one of the highest concentrations of elderly people in the U.S. so it's understandable that the question of euthanasia comes up here.

Here's what you need to know.

Ellen Gilland:Daytona police arrest woman accused of shooting husband at AdventHealth following standoff

Gilland charged:NSB woman accused of shooting husband at AdventHealth charged with first-degree murder

Roswell Gilbert:Shots in 1994 Fort Lauderdale death started mercy killing crusade

What is the difference between mercy killing, euthanasia, medically-assisted suicide and assisted dying?

Euthanasia is the act of intentionally ending someone's life to relieve suffering, such as by giving them a lethal injection, without the regulations or oversight of a legal authority. It is also referred to as mercy killing, especially when the means are violent. Euthanasia is not legal in any state and is considered murder or manslaughter, even if the patient requests it. Limited forms of euthanasia are legal in some countries.

Assisted suicide is the act of a non-physician giving someone the means to end their life, whether by providing the method to do so or by helping transport them to a location where it can be done. Assisted suicide is also illegal in all 50 states.

Medically-assisted suicide, also called physician-assisted death (PAD) or assisted dying, is the act of providing prescribed medication for some terminally ill patients who meet a series of qualifications to administer to themselves. Assisted dying is currently legal in 10 states and several countries.

Where is assisted dying legal in the United States?

In the United States, 10 states currently have Death With Dignity, Right to Die or End of Life Options laws on the books: Oregon (the first one, in 1997), Washington, Vermont, California, Colorado, Washington D.C., Hawaii, New Jersey, Maine and New Mexico. Montana's Supreme Court ruled it was legal but no specific law has been passed yet to allow it.

More:New Jersey becomes eighth state to legalize medically assisted suicide

Is euthanasia legal anywhere?

Not in the United States, but several countries allow different forms of euthanasia: the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Colombia, Canada, Spain and New Zealand.

The closest thing to euthanasia available in the U.S. is the right to refuse medical treatment, sometimes called "passive euthanasia." This can be done while under care by the patient or the patient's legal guardian or in advance with directions in a Living Will or DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) commands.

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Is euthanasia legal in Florida?

No.

Florida State Code 765.309, states that "Nothing construed to condone, authorize, or approve mercy killing or euthanasia or to permit any affirmative or deliberate act or omission to end life other than to permit the natural process of dying."

However, Florida statutes specifically declare that refusing medical care is not considered suicide. "The withdrawing of life-prolonging procedures from a patient in accordance with any provision of this chapter does not for any purpose constitute a suicide."

Who was Roswell Gilbert?

There are several notable stories in the right-to-die movement, and one of the earliest was in Florida.

In Fort Lauderdale in 1985, a retired engineer shot his wife twice in the head in what he considered the best way to end years of her suffering, which brought national attention and discussion to both mercy killings and to Alzheimer's disease, a condition that wasn't talked about much prior to this.

Gilbert was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years, which shocked many supporters who felt he acted out of love. Later cases occasionally moved away from mandatory sentencing or allowed defendants to plead to lesser charges, such as 80-year-old Telford Miller who killed his terminally ill wife in 1999 in Lake Wales Hospital and was given 10 years probation.

Stephen Kruspe:Man, 62, shoots, kills wife with dementia

What is the argument for assisted dying?

The two most common arguments in favor of assisted dying are to provide control and dignity for the patient and to relieve intractable suffering.

Brittany Maynard, 29, became the face of the right-to-death movement when she announced she was diagnosed with a stage 4 malignant brain tumor and was moving with her family from California to Oregon where she could legally die with medication.

"I plan to be surrounded by my immediate family," she said in a video. "I will die upstairs in my bedroom that I share with my husband (...) and pass peacefully with some music I like in the background."

Proponents of assisted dying point to tragic cases such as Maynard's when intractable pain with no possibility of cure or reprieve is agonizing to contemplate. Medical advocates say that relief of suffering is humane and compassionate.

"What I fear is a death that negates, as opposed to concludes, my life," said Gloria Taylor, who was dying of Lou Gehrig's disease and whose case spurred Canada's highest court to strike down that country's ban against assisted dying, said. "I do not want to die slowly, piece by piece. I do not want to waste away unconscious in a hospital bed. I do not want to die wracked with pain."

States with Death With Dignity or Right to Die acts require that patients be 18 or over, be mentally competent to request it, be diagnosed with a terminal illness that will lead to death in six months as determined by qualified health care providers, and be capable of self-administering the medication. There is a waiting period, requirements on how the request must be made, and the medication is by prescription only. Some states require a second waiting period. The patient can change their mind at any time, or simply not take the medication.

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More:I'm dying from cancer. I have to move across the country to die on my own terms

What is the argument against assisted dying?

There are several. Possibly the strongest — or at least the most passionate — is religious and addresses the value of human life in all situations and the effects suicide has on the soul.

In 2019, representatives from Christianity, Judaism and Islam signed a joint declaration at the Vatican rejecting euthanasia and assisted dying. “The Rejection of Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide” said, “We oppose any form of euthanasia — that is the direct, deliberate and intentional act of taking life — as well as physician-assisted suicide —that is the direct, deliberate and intentional support of committing suicide —because they fundamentally contradict the inalienable value of human life, and therefore are inherently and consequentially morally and religiously wrong, and should be forbidden without exceptions.”

A year later the Vatican reaffirmed its stance that euthanasia and assisted suicide are "intrinsically evil." (The Vatican also condemned Brittany Maynard's decision in 2014.)

Many physicians and several medical groups such as the American Medical Association oppose it because they consider assisted dying "fundamentally inconsistent with the physician's professional role" and contrary to the Hippocratic Oath.

Some critics have expressed worries that assisted dying is a slippery slope that will lead to an expansion of justifications for killing off patients and the legalization of euthanasia. There also are concerns that assisted dying laws are susceptible to abuse, especially for elderly and mentally disabled (or rich) patients, or that the mere existence of such laws might pressure patients and their families to make rash and irreversible decisions.

Has anyone tried to pass Death with Dignity legislation in Florida?

In 2020, Sen. Kevin Rader, D-Boca Raton, introduced the Florida Death with Dignity Act — SB 1800. According to Compassion & Choices, an Oregon-based end-of-life choice advocacy organization, the bill was modeled after the Oregon act with strict criteria for qualified patients, waiting periods and the ability to rescind the decision. The bill, which had no companion bill in the Florida House, was not expected to pass.

The act is "likely going to take a very long time to become law," said Michael Farmer, Florida campaign manager for Compassion & Choices.

Contributors: Britt Kennerly, Florida Today

If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or 800-273-TALK (8255) any time day or night. Crisis Text Line also provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 741741.

C. A. Bridges is a Digital Producer for the USA TODAY Network, working with multiple newsrooms across Florida. Local journalists work hard to keep you informed about the things you care about, and you can support them by subscribing to your local news organizationRead more articles by Chris here and follow him on Twitter at @cabridges