High Court to Rule on Right to Die Controversial Case Will Affect Laws That Ban Assisted Suicide

Article excerpt

The Supreme Court will take up the most emotionally charged issue of its term this morning: whether terminally ill patients have a constitutional right to commit suicide with the aid of a doctor.

The court's ruling, expected by July, could in effect overturn laws banning the practice in many states, including Missouri and Illinois, where the wide divergence of opinion typifies the intense national debate on the subject.

The "right to die" controversy touches a special nerve in Missouri, where the parents of Nancy Cruzan won the right to end life support systems for her in a Supreme Court ruling of 1990 that will figure prominently in the attorneys' arguments before the court today. "Missouri was a boiling pot for the emotions of this issue," noted Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon, who is glad the state does not figure directly in the current cases, which are from New York and Washington state. "These are the kind of private decisions that should be made with the assistance of doctors and clergy and families," Nixon said Tuesday. "I'm trying to keep the government of the state of Missouri out of that debate. These are issues which are much better dealt with in a private setting than they are in a governmental setting." Under Missouri law, helping someone commit suicide is voluntary manslaughter punishable by 15 years in prison. No one has ever gone to trial under the law; prosecutors in Newton County, Mo., dropped manslaughter charges last month against two family members who were alleged to have helped a Belleville woman commit suicide in Joplin, Mo. The 77-year-old woman had Lou Gehrig's disease. Nixon declined to sign on to a brief in the case filed last year by Illinois and 19 other states defending laws banning doctor-assisted suicide. That brief urges the court not to recognize a constitutional right to doctor-assisted suicide, saying it would result in a "bottomless pit of constitutional litigation" all over the country. The states echoed the concerns of some groups who fear that such a right would not be limited to the terminally ill. Both Nixon and Dan Curry, a spokesman for Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan, said that a Supreme Court ruling striking down the New York and Washington laws might invalidate the laws in Missouri or Illinois, depending on the wording. "It's possible our law might have to be rewritten, but we hope not," Curry said. …