High Court Unveils 3 Major Decisions: Statutes Barring Assisted Suicide Upheld by All 9

Article excerpt

A unanimous Supreme Court declared yesterday that states may outlaw assisted suicide to avoid what Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist called "a Netherlands-style slide to voluntary and perhaps involuntary euthanasia."

The ruling that states are not constitutionally obliged to permit doctor-assisted suicide apparently leaves them free to legalize the practice. Several justices noted doctors are free to relieve pain even if death is an unintended side-effect.

"Throughout the nation Americans are engaged in earnest and profound debate about the morality, legality and practicality of physician-assisted suicide. Our holding permits this debate to continue, as it should in a democratic society," wrote Justice Rehnquist, whose wife, Natalie, died in 1991 from ovarian cancer.

To the relief of physicians who oppose helping suicides, the court drew sharp distinctions between killing a patient and disconnecting life support or increasing dosages of painkillers to relieve suffering.

"The physician's purpose and intent is, or may be, only to ease his patient's pain. A doctor who assists a suicide, however, must, necessarily and indubitably, intend primarily that the patient be made dead," the chief justice said.

The ruling found New York and Washington state justified in following a 700-year tradition of Anglo-American law to disapprove of suicide and punish as criminals those who help the final act.

It reversed decisions by two appeals courts overturning the state laws but left undecided the validity of Oregon voters' choice to legalize physician-assisted suicide subject to Supreme Court review in the fall.

"The asserted right to assistance in committing suicide is not a fundamental right that is protected by the due process clause," the chief justice told a crowded courtroom in announcing the high court's first ruling on a social movement to facilitate death for terminally ill patients.

By citing in such blunt terms the Dutch practice that permits frequent exceptions to a national law, the chief justice touched a fear of some assisted-suicide opponents - that old or infirm people will be killed without consent.

All nine justices agreed on the bottom-line judgment in both cases. But John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer expressed themselves in separate concurring opinions. In all, the two cases inspired 12 written opinions.

Justice O'Connor also joined Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas in the court's opinion written by the chief justice.

Justice O'Connor agreed there is no general right to commit suicide and worried about how voluntary the decision might be. But she suggested that mentally competent patients who are suffering may have a constitutional interest "in controlling the circumstances of his or her imminent death."

"Death will be different for each of us. For many the last days will be spent in physical pain and perhaps the despair that accompanies physical deterioration and a loss of control of basic bodily and mental functions," she wrote. …