Philly Nurse Accused Of Helping Elderly Father Die

A nurse faces trial for allegedly helping her elderly father commit suicide by supplying him with morphine. Advocates argue she's protected if her intent was to relieve pain, even if that hastened death. Host Rachel Martin talks with NPR's Jeff Brady about the details of the case.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

A legal case in Pennsylvania has reopened the debate in this country over whether someone has the right to take their own life, and if a loved one can help them do it. A Philadelphia nurse named Barbara Mancini has been charged with helping her 93-year-old father commit suicide. Mancini's father had been suffering from heart disease and diabetes. Earlier this year, his health had taken a turn for the worse. Mancini requested morphine to help ease her dad's pain.

NPR's Jeff Brady has been following this case. He joins me to talk more about it. Jeff, so we understand Barbara Mancini was given that painkiller for her father from medical staff. Then what happened?

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: She gave the entire vial to her father. Then he attempted suicide. Apparently, it was clear to the family that her father - his name was Joe Yourshaw - that he wanted to die. It was clear to the entire family that was case. He'd stopped taking his medications a few months earlier. You know, the big question in this case is what was Mancini's intention when she handed her father that vial.

Police charged her with a felony count of aiding suicide. The hospice nurse told police that Mancini admitted she gave the vial to her father so that he could end his life. But Mancini's attorney says she would never admit to that. The attorney maintains that Mancini intended to ease her father's pain. And that distinction is important because advocates argue there's some legal precedent that protects people if the intention is to relieve pain, even if that hastens death.

MARTIN: And we should say there are some states with laws that allow assisted suicide. Pennsylvania is not one of them though.

BRADY: That's right, assisting suicide is specifically against the law in Pennsylvania. There are three states that have laws permitting assisted suicides: Oregon, Washington, Vermont. And then, in Montana, there was a 2009 State Supreme Court ruling that essentially permits it.

MARTIN: So what is the status of the criminal case now against Barbara Mancini?

BRADY: Well, Mancini posted $100,000 bail, so she's not in jail right now. There was a preliminary hearing earlier this month where the judge decided the case would go to trial but no date has been set for that trial. Considering how cases like this typically progress, it's likely the trial will begin sometime next spring.

Meantime, assisted suicide advocates have launched a campaign to pressure Pennsylvania's Attorney General Kathleen Kane to drop the charges against Mancini. But right now, it looks like prosecutors are going ahead with the case.

MARTIN: I wonder how this case is resonating just within general circles. How are Pennsylvanians reacting? Is this something people are talking about?

BRADY: You know, for assisted suicide advocates - both in Pennsylvania and around the country - this case is a huge deal right now. This is the number one issue for those folks. But for average people around Pennsylvania, I'm not hearing people talk about it here. It just hasn't been a big topic. There have been a few stories in the newspaper but I suspect that could change when this trial starts.

MARTIN: NPR's Jeff Brady joined us from Philadelphia. Thanks so much, Jeff.

BRADY: Thank you.

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