The "right to die" cause is building legal and popular momentum,
with two federal courts recently allowing physician-assisted
suicide and with polls showing 73 percent of Americans approve of
Despite public sympathy for what is a wrenching personal choice,
the right-to-die movement has hit a snag. A legal, moral, and
intellectual uprising against assisted suicide has emerged, partly
in reaction to the clear shift toward its approval.
The fight may be bitter. The dramas of Michigan "suicide doctor"
Jack Kevorkian, the stark testimony of patients and their families,
and a new legal underpinning based on individual rights have led
some experts to suggest that a US Supreme Court ruling to uphold a
right to die may be in the offing. New York and Washington State
have asked the high court to review the two federal court
decisions. If the supreme bench agrees this fall to take the case,
one of the most important decisions since Roe v. Wade could come by
Opponents are a broad and disparate group - physicians, legal
scholars, religious thinkers, and ethicists. At bottom, opponents
feel legal suicide is too profound an issue to rush into. They
question whether a right to die is a constitutional right.
Moreover, they share the view that doctor-assisted suicide, if not
handled properly, could become dangerously routine, slowly
cheapening the collective value of life in the US.
Last week a loose coalition of antisuicide attorneys, led in part
by University of Michigan scholar Yale Kamisar, met in Washington
for a strategy session, in the event the Supreme Court takes up the
issue. "We are now in a second wave of questioning," says Daniel
Callahan of the Hastings Center in Westchester County, N.Y. "When
people begin thinking about it, this issue becomes less simple and
US law makes sharp distinctions between being allowed to die and
actively seeking to end one's life. The Supreme Court recognizes
the right to refuse medical treatment or be voluntarily removed
from life-support equipment. Yet allowing mentally competent
individuals to "determine the time and manner" of their own deaths,
as Judge Stephen Reinhardt argued in March for the San
Francisco-based Ninth Circuit Court, is criminal in 34 states and
has never been upheld by the high court.
So far, the issue has been dominated by Mr. Kevorkian, a
pathologist defrocked of his medical license, who earned the title
"Dr. Death" in the 1950s when he tried to capture on film the
moment when a person dies. Since 1990, Kevorkian has helped 33
clients end their lives. Last week he made headlines again when a
Michigan medical examiner said Kevorkian's last client, Rebecca
Badger, showed no signs of terminal illness in an autopsy, though
in 1988 doctors diagnosed multiple sclerosis.
At the National Press Club on July 29, Kevorkian and his lawyer
Geoffrey Fieger denied the charges and attacked the courts as
corrupt and the media as "wimps." Mr. Fieger said, "This is not the
right to commit suicide.... It is the right not to suffer."
Opponents say the focus on the personality of Kevorkian, and on
tragic individual cases of patients, must be balanced by the larger
practical effect of euthanasia. Some in the antisuicide uprising do
not take an absolute position against it. What they want is a more
conscious choice by Americans, not a rush to judgment. As Yale law
professor Stephen Carter writes, "Because the arguments on both
sides carry such strong moral plausibility . …