Court Rejects Right to Assisted Suicide

The Christian Century, July 16, 1997 | Go to article overview

Court Rejects Right to Assisted Suicide


In a unanimous decision June 26 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld state laws forbidding doctor-assisted euthanasia. "In almost every state, indeed, in almost every Western democracy, it is a crime to assist a suicide," Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote in the court's opinion. "The states' assisted-suicide bans are not innovations. Rather they are longstanding expressions of states' commitment to the protection and preservation of human life."

In its decision the court upheld laws in Washington and New York states--overturned by lower federal courts--that make it a crime for doctors to give life-ending drugs to mentally competent but terminally ill patients who no longer want to live. "The history of the law's treatment of assisted suicide in this country has been and continues to be one of the rejection of nearly all efforts to permit it," Rehnquist argued. "That being the case, our decisions lead us to conclude that the asserted `right' to assistance in committing suicide is not a fundamental liberty interest protected by the due-process clause" of the Constitution.

Three justices, Sandra Day O'Connor, John Paul Stevens and David H. Souter, each wrote a separate concurring opinion, with Souter suggesting that he could change his mind if Congress or state legislatures enacted laws allowing assisted suicide. "While I do not decide for all time that [the] claim [to a constitutional right] should not be recognized, I acknowledge the legislative institutional competence as the better one to deal with that claim at this time," Souter wrote.

The case had been closely watched by the religious community, the medical profession and legal experts, with most religious leaders urging the court to maintain the ban. Many of them had filed friend-of-the-court briefs urging the justices to find the New York and Washington laws constitutional. "The Supreme Court displayed wisdom and restraint today by upholding state laws that protected terminally ill patients from those who would offer to `assist' their suicides," stated Roman Catholic Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston. "The court's ruling is consonant with two centuries of legal tradition, and over 20 centuries of moral wisdom recognizing that healers must not be agents of death," Law added.

Also on June 26 the court ruled that Congress violated free-speech rights when it passed the Communications Decency Act to protect children from pornography on the Internet. In a 7-2 decision--the court's first in the realm of cyberspace--the justices ruled that portions of the act violated the freespeech rights of Americans. The two dissenting justices, Chief Justice William H. …

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