Is It a Wonderful Life? Two Federal Courts Strike Down Bans on Assisted Suicide and Set Stage for a Supreme Court Battle

By Kaplan, David A. | Newsweek, April 15, 1996 | Go to article overview

Is It a Wonderful Life? Two Federal Courts Strike Down Bans on Assisted Suicide and Set Stage for a Supreme Court Battle


Kaplan, David A., Newsweek


MOST LEGAL REVOTIONS are anything but swift. Often, the only thing that moves slower than constitutional law is the judges who administer it. Desegregation, First Amendment freedoms, even the reach of congressional power--all these facts of modem life in the United States took decades of litigation to achieve. But the courts occasionally surprise. That's what's happened in less than a month in the right-to-die debate. Two influential federal appeals courts, using different legal theories, have dramatically expanded the ability of terminally ill patients to kill themselves and immunized the physicians who help, them. Though the historic decisions technically apply only to several states, they may embolden other courts and eventually cast doubt on the laws of all states. Currently, 32 states explicitly prohibit assisted suicide and almost all the rest outlaw it under general homicide statutes.

Forget Dr. Jack Kevorkian, now on trial for the third time. While crusader Kevorkian dons Tory wigs in the court house and mixes his brew of poisons--he's been present at the suicides of 27 individuals since 1990, but has never been convicted of anything--his significance in the national debate over assisted suicide has suddenly waned. The fight now is among appellate judges, and the next battleground is likely to be the U.S. Supreme Court late this year or early next. If the high court agrees to hear either case, it could set up a moral struggle not seen since the days of Roe v. Wade.

Last week the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan weighed in. It ruled that New York state's manslaughter statute couldn't be used to prosecute doctors who prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill patients who ask for them and then use them to commit suicide. "What interest can the state possibly have in requiring the prolongation of a life that is all but ended?" the judges wrote. "And what business is it of the state ... to interfere With a mentally competent patient's right to define [his] own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life?"

Such philosophizing aside, the court's legal reasoning was still narrow. It did not find that assisted suicide was a constitutional right, but only that New York failed to honor the constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the law.

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Is It a Wonderful Life? Two Federal Courts Strike Down Bans on Assisted Suicide and Set Stage for a Supreme Court Battle
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