Assisted Suicide Goes to Top Court: Justices Will Decide If Practice Is a Right

Article excerpt

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed yesterday to resolve the visceral "right to die" issue of whether doctors may help desperate patients kill themselves.

Urged by medical and church groups to take on a moral issue many equate with the Roe vs. Wade abortion decision, justices accepted separate appeals by the states of New York and Washington from federal rulings allowing doctors to help competent patients with cancer, emphysema or AIDS die.

Some critics call assisted suicide "the Dutch cure" because the Netherlands condones euthanasia.

Rep. Charles T. Canady, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, criticized the practice in a report charging that 27 percent of 3,700 Dutch euthanasia cases in one year were involuntary.

That finding vividly illustrates a risk that "should give any government pause," he said yesterday.

"More than any other issue dealt with by the court, this will affect each and every person, since every one of us will die," said Rita Marker, executive director of the International Anti-Euthanasia Task Force, which opposes assisted suicide and the 1990 Cruzan case, which established a constitutional right to die.

"There certainly is no constitutional right to be killed," she said. "Never has the court ever hinted than anyone has any right to be killed by one's doctor or be poisoned or gassed to death."

In cases taken for review:

* The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted 8-3 that three patients in Washington had a 14th Amendment due-process right to kill themselves and that the state could not forbid doctors to help them do it by prescribing life-ending medication.

* The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found a similar right and struck down two New York laws barring the practice, basing its decision on the 14th Amendment's equal-protection clause. The court equated active help in suicide with honoring a refusal of life-sustaining measures. The two cases involve findings of implicit constitutional "liberty interests" not spelled out in so many words, similar to the privacy right used in Roe vs. Wade to strike down state barriers to abortion.

"It is a tragic irony that our country is moving to a place where we prohibit only the killing of the healthy and strong while we sanction the killing of the frailest members of our own families: our unborn children and elderly," said Cathy Cleaver of the Family Research Council.

In taking the case, the high court dismissed objections by Kathryn L. Tucker of Compassion in Dying, representing doctors who won both appellate cases. …