Assisted Suicide Goes to Top Court: Appellate Judges Toppled State Bans

Article excerpt

The Supreme Court on Wednesday will consider whether the Constitution protects dying people's access to medical help in ending their lives, easily the most explosive social issue before the court this term.

Unless the court overturns a federal appellate ruling that the 14th Amendment protects the prerogative as much as it assures access to abortion, bans in 46 states on physician-assisted suicide will be unenforceable.

Doctors willing to give fatal injections could then legally kill competent adults who say they are ready to die. Many doctors say they already do.

No nation officially permits the practice, but it was legalized in the Northern Territories of Australia.

The dispute won't end entirely even if the high court, as many analysts predict, lets states continue outlawing assisted suicide.

That would leave for another day the question of whether states may permit suicide assistance, as Oregon voted to do in a ballot initiative that is on hold pending Supreme Court action. Bills to follow suit failed in 16 states in 1995 and 1996, including Maryland.

A basis for one of the two decisions under appeal is the right of people to control their bodies in such matters as aborting pregnancies. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals relied on Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion, in blocking Washington state from banning assisted suicide.

That poses a conflict for foes of assisted suicide who advocate choice on abortion, including the Clinton administration.

"This produced strange bedfellows. On other life issues, we're on opposite sides," said Myrna Gutierrez, a spokeswoman for Americans United for Life.

She said the development proves a prophecy more than two decades old. "Many pro-lifers in the beginning predicted the decision in Roe vs. Wade would lead to assisted suicide and euthanasia. That is now happening."

The second decision on appeal cited "equal protection" grounds to overturn New York's ban on assisted suicide. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that dying patients have as much right to be injected with fatal drugs as they do to refuse medical efforts to resuscitate them or otherwise maintain their lives with medical care, food and water.

While opinion polls and surveys of medical professionals report overwhelming support for a suicide option, public votes fall the other way when a political career or medical reputation is at stake.

Thirty-four states, including Oregon, explicitly ban assisted suicide by statute; 12 others do so under case law. Hawaii, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming have not settled the issue.

Congressional hearings on bills introduced last session to bar funding of assisted suicide became a stage dominated by physicians opposed to the idea, except for Dr. Timothy E. Quill, who brought one of the cases now before the high court.

"Legalizing physician-assisted suicide or any other practice designed to kill innocent human beings would result in abandoning to death the sick, the elderly and those most vulnerable in our society," said Rep. Charles T. Canady, Florida Republican, who led House Judiciary subcommittee hearings on the issue.

Such views arouse the ire of H. Squier Hanni of Vero Beach, Fla., whose friend and former neighbor Kenneth Dollinger was charged with first-degree murder after suffocating his wife last month because he couldn't get a doctor to ease her cancer pain.

"Is Big Brother a better judge of how I should die?" Mr. Hanni said, his ire also raised by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's deathbed letter urging the Supreme Court to overturn the decisions. "Why should he attempt to impose his thinking on me? …