Suicide Debate Reaches Suprme Court

By O'Keefe, Mark; Bates, Tom | National Catholic Reporter, January 17, 1997 | Go to article overview

Suicide Debate Reaches Suprme Court


O'Keefe, Mark, Bates, Tom, National Catholic Reporter


For most of human history in the West one's life was not one's own. A human being belonged to king or country and, above all, to God.

On Wednesday Jan. 8, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a challenge to that notion as it listened to arguments on whether the terminally ill have a constitutional right to kill themselves with the help of a doctor.

The case, involving Washington and New York state laws, could be to doctor-assisted suicide what the Roe v. Wade decision was to abortion.

If the court agrees that human beings are autonomous, the individual--not the church, state or forces of nature--will have final say over life and death.

To Washington state Attorney General Christine Gregoire, it's not just a question of individual rights but of "changing our complete culture."

"It opens a whole new way of looking at things," she says.

Opponents of doctor-assisted suicide argue that if the Constitution gives freedom to end life with the help of a physician, then it may also safeguard the right to take hallucinogenic drugs, engage in prostitution or fight duels.

Right-to-die proponents say if freedom doesn't include the right to end one's life with the help of a physician, it will threaten abortion rights, contraceptive rights and the right to raise children according to one's own standards.

A decision against assisted suicide risks "cutting the roots out under the tree of liberty," says Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe, who argued the case before the Supreme Court.

"You can't have a flourishing tree that has one branch with abortion and another branch with contraception and no roots. The roots have to say the state can't take away from you so much of your liberty that you become a mere creature of the government," Tribe said.

Five years ago the Supreme Court proclaimed that the Constitution gives individuals the right to define their "own concept of existence." But the court and the nation may be unprepared to follow that logic to its conclusion.

The word "autonomy" comes from the Greek auto, for self, and nomos, for law. "Personal autonomy" characterizes a person who is a law unto him/herself.

But to the Greeks, being disconnected from community was the worst of fates. And even though the pagan societies of ancient Greece and Rome condoned suicide. they considered it a community matter.

Athenians, for example, could not commit suicide without permission from the Senate. A man who stabbed himself in anger was, in Aristotle's opinion, treating the state unjustly.

Early Judaism and Christianity held that God had power over life and death. To dampen an excessive zeal for martyrdom. the early Catholic church threatened to excommunicate or deny funeral rites to those who killed themselves.

On assisted suicide, Augustine, the 5th-century Christian theologian, was emphatic: "It is never licit to kill another: Even if he should wish it, indeed if he request it because, hanging between life and death, he begs for help in freeing the soul struggling against the bonds of the body and longing to be released; nor is it licit even when a sick person is no longer able to live."

English common law of the Middle Ages regarded God as the author of human life and the king, God's earthly representative, as its steward. As legal scholar Sir William Blackstone wrote in 1765 in his Commentaries, suicide offended both God and the king, "who hath an interest in the preservation of all his subjects."

Rationalist philosophers of the 18th century proclaimed the autonomy of man. Acting on the new ideas, the French revolutionary regime of 1790 abolished the law against suicide.

But the early American states remained true to English common law, confiscating family property if the owner committed suicide. That practice was abandoned, along with laws criminalizing suicide, by the end of the 19th century. …

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