Revolt against 'Right-to-Die' Movement Critics Marshal Arguments against Doctor-Assisted Suicide

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The "right to die" cause is building legal and popular momentum, with two federal courts recently allowing physician-assisted suicide and with polls showing 73 percent of Americans approve of the practice. Despite public sympathy for what is a wrenching personal choice, the right-to-die movement has hit a snag. A legal, moral, and intellectual uprising against assisted suicide has emerged, partly in reaction to the clear shift toward its approval. The fight may be bitter. The dramas of Michigan "suicide doctor" Jack Kevorkian, the stark testimony of patients and their families, and a new legal underpinning based on individual rights have led some experts to suggest that a US Supreme Court ruling to uphold a right to die may be in the offing. New York and Washington State have asked the high court to review the two federal court decisions. If the supreme bench agrees this fall to take the case, one of the most important decisions since Roe v. Wade could come by next spring. Opponents are a broad and disparate group - physicians, legal scholars, religious thinkers, and ethicists. At bottom, opponents feel legal suicide is too profound an issue to rush into. They question whether a right to die is a constitutional right. Moreover, they share the view that doctor-assisted suicide, if not handled properly, could become dangerously routine, slowly cheapening the collective value of life in the US. Last week a loose coalition of antisuicide attorneys, led in part by University of Michigan scholar Yale Kamisar, met in Washington for a strategy session, in the event the Supreme Court takes up the issue. "We are now in a second wave of questioning," says Daniel Callahan of the Hastings Center in Westchester County, N.Y. "When people begin thinking about it, this issue becomes less simple and more complex." US law makes sharp distinctions between being allowed to die and actively seeking to end one's life. The Supreme Court recognizes the right to refuse medical treatment or be voluntarily removed from life-support equipment. Yet allowing mentally competent individuals to "determine the time and manner" of their own deaths, as Judge Stephen Reinhardt argued in March for the San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit Court, is criminal in 34 states and has never been upheld by the high court. So far, the issue has been dominated by Mr. Kevorkian, a pathologist defrocked of his medical license, who earned the title "Dr. Death" in the 1950s when he tried to capture on film the moment when a person dies. Since 1990, Kevorkian has helped 33 clients end their lives. Last week he made headlines again when a Michigan medical examiner said Kevorkian's last client, Rebecca Badger, showed no signs of terminal illness in an autopsy, though in 1988 doctors diagnosed multiple sclerosis. At the National Press Club on July 29, Kevorkian and his lawyer Geoffrey Fieger denied the charges and attacked the courts as corrupt and the media as "wimps." Mr. Fieger said, "This is not the right to commit suicide.... It is the right not to suffer." Opponents say the focus on the personality of Kevorkian, and on tragic individual cases of patients, must be balanced by the larger practical effect of euthanasia. Some in the antisuicide uprising do not take an absolute position against it. What they want is a more conscious choice by Americans, not a rush to judgment. As Yale law professor Stephen Carter writes, "Because the arguments on both sides carry such strong moral plausibility . …