Supreme Court Takes Up Assisted Suicide This Week, Justices Will Hear Arguments in Case with Potential to Change `Our Complete Culture'

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FOR MOST OF human history, in most Western societies, your life was not your own to dispense with as you pleased. You belonged to king or country and, above all, to God.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments that challenge that once-entrenched philosophy. The nine justices will ponder whether the terminally ill have a constitutional right to kill themselves with the help of a doctor.

The case, involving Washington state and New York laws, could be to doctor-assisted suicide what Roe vs. Wade is to abortion. To Washington state Attorney General Christine Gregoire, it's not just a question of individual rights but of "changing our complete culture." "It opens a whole new way of looking at things," she says. Opponents of doctor-assisted suicide argue that if the Constitution gives freedom to end a life with the help of a doctor, then it may also protect taking drugs, becoming a prostitute or engaging in a duel. Proponents of a new "right to die" say an adverse ruling by the court would threaten abortion rights, contraceptive rights and the right to raise your children as you please. A decision against assisted-suicide risks "cutting the roots out under the tree of liberty," says Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe, who will argue Wednesday before the Supreme Court. "You can't have a flourishing tree that has one branch with abortion and another branch with contraception and no roots. The roots have to say the state can't take away from you so much of your liberty that you become a mere creature of the government." English common law of the Middle Ages regarded God as the author of human life and the king, God's earthly representative, as its steward. As legal scholar Sir William Blackstone wrote in his 1765 Commentaries, a suicide offended both God and the king, "who hath an interest in the preservation of all his subjects." The early American states remained true to English common law tradition, confiscating family property if the owner committed suicide. The practice was abandoned, along with laws criminalizing suicide, by the end of the 19th century. Still, most states retained laws against assisting suicide, treating it as a form of homicide. "Historically, states have had great power to regulate behavior," notes Seattle University law professor Annette Clark. "It would be a fundamental shift to say that states don't have that power." Emphasizing Liberty Over Life Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt, whose lengthy justification of a right to die is one of two opinions under review by the Supreme Court this week, promotes an individualistic freedom to choose. He says people of faith have a right to follow their own creed but they are not free "to force their views, their religious convictions, or their philosophies on all the other members of a democratic society, and to compel those whose values differ with theirs to die painful, protracted and agonizing deaths." Reinhardt's constitutional justification for assisted suicide is the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. It says no state shall "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law . . . " Reinhardt emphasizes liberty, not life. In this century, the Supreme Court has said the 14th Amendment also protects personal decisions about marriage, procreation, family relationships, child rearing and education, intercourse, contraception and abortion. …