The Supreme Court and Euthanasia

In a rare, unanimous ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court determined in 1997 that there is no "constitutional right" to assisted suicide. This decision left intact the law in Pennsylvania that forbids a doctor (or anyone else) to "assist" in suicide by actively taking the life of a patient. Most other states have similar laws. The court ruling does not block laws legalizing euthanasia and has no effect on the Oregon law allowing "physician-assisted suicide," but rather permits state legislatures and courts to determine the law.

"For once, at least," said columnist John Leo, "an urgent political and moral debate was not swept aside by a court determined to give us the correct answer from on high."

Attorneys on both sides of the issue had believed that the cases could have potentially been the "Roe v. Wade of euthanasia." Lower federal courts had found a "constitutional right" to "assisted suicide" in more than one case. If the Supreme Court had agreed, euthanasia on demand would be the law of the land today, just as abortion on demand is, due to the court's Roe decision in 1973.

The two cases decided on June 26, 1997 were Washington v. Glucksberg, in which the court gave broad latitude for states to ban assisted suicide, and Vacco v. Quill, in which New York's challenged law against euthanasia was upheld.

Dr. Timothy Quill, the New York doctor in the Vacco case, changed his mind shortly after the case was argued before the Supreme Court, but before the ruling was issued. Quill said he wouldn't mind if the court ruled against him and upheld laws against "assisted suicide." He now says that euthanasia is a "bad option," a philosophical retraction of his position presented to the court in January.

"This historic decision is a victory for those who call for improved care, not killing," said Rita Marker, executive director of the International Anti-Euthanasia Task Force. "Assisted suicide advocates have failed to have their agenda imposed on the nation by judges. Now they'll be forced to prove their case in the court of public opinion. We are confident that they will fail there as well."

Chief Justice William Rehnquist, writing for the court in the Washington case, said, "The State has an interest in preventing suicide, and in studying, identifying and treating its causes." He further acknowledged that western law and society have always viewed suicide as a "grievous" act. He said state laws banning assisted suicide "(t)hough deeply rooted... have in recent years been reexamined and, generally, reaffirmed."

In the Vacco case, Rehnquist distinguished letting people die with dignity from making people die. "By permitting everyone to refuse unwanted treatment while prohibiting anyone from assisting a suicide, New York law follows a long-standing and rational distinction."

This overturned the findings of two federal courts last year, that if one has a right to refuse intrusive life support treatment, he or she must have the "equivalent right" to have doctors intentionally end their lives.

"Until now," Marker said, "euthanasia advocates have relied almost exclusively on emotionalism, false claims, and demagoguery to promote their agenda. But now that the issue is taking center stage, such tactics won't work. The American people want and deserve a substantive discussion."

The move to legalize euthanasia "will become a mere footnote in history" as the public is educated on compassionate answers to pain in dying, Marker said.
"The more people learn about euthanasia, the more they oppose it," she said. "But it's not enough to simply reject assisted suicide and leave it at that. Now we must work together to ensure that people with disabilities have access to independent living, that dying people have access to hospicecare, that their families have the support they need, and... that physicians be better educated in modern methods of pain control." 

For more information on this issue, visit the site of Oregon Right to Life, where assisted suicide is legal to find out what has happened to their state as a result.



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