One for the court to leave alone

March 24, 1996|By Sara Engram

JUST WHEN tort reform, assault weapons and budget battles seem to be dominating the news, along comes a court ruling and a jury's acquittal to stir up the waters on an issue few politicians can be happy to face.

The right-to-die argument has all the passion of the abortion debate and even more complexity.

An abortion is an abortion, but the right to die can refer to assisted or unassisted suicide. The more controversial option, assisted suicide, can come in either a passive form by removing life support, or actively, with the injection of drugs hastening death. It can involve physicians or merely a spouse or friend. Perhaps most significant for the public debate, it touches directly on the interests of far more voters especially the elderly than abortion ever did.

The issue has been simmering for years, but a March 6 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit raised the stakes by overturning a Washington state ban on assisted suicide on the grounds that it violated the constitutional rights of legally competent, terminally ill people.

Two days later, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the would-be ''obitiatrist,'' was acquitted by a Michigan jury of violating a state law designed largely to thwart his high-profile activities. After deliberating for nine hours, the jury accepted Dr. Kevorkian's argument that his intent was to ease pain and suffering, not to cause death.

That was the second acquittal for Dr. Kevorkian in two years, and he is now presumably free to take more customers.

As distasteful as Dr. Kevorkian's ''assistance'' may be, his acquittal has less far-reaching consequences than the ruling from a federal appeals court only one step below the Supreme Court. Many court watchers now assume that the Ninth Circuit's decision will be taken up by the Supreme Court.

Let's hope they are wrong. The last thing we need is a sweeping court ruling on this issue -- whichever way the ruling goes. If we've learned anything from the abortion debate, it is that a ruling from the Supreme Court does not necessarily settle an issue like this.

After more than two decades of shouting, picketing and violence aimed at women's-health clinics and their staff, abortion is legal, but not necessarily easily accessible. We don't need that kind of stalemate on the right to die.

Running ''roughshod''

But court decisions like the one issued by the Ninth Circuit may be pushing us that way. Already, the appeals-court ruling has sparked angry responses from the nation's Roman Catholic bishops. They described the decision as running ''roughshod over important ethical distinctions, legal precedents and the prevailing judgment of the American Medical Association.''

The bishops aren't alone. For several years now, the anti-abortion movement has included ''euthanasia'' among its targets.

Although many doctors would like to see criminal penalties removed and reasonable controls in place for those agonizing end-of-life decisions, the American Medical Association remains adamantly opposed to any legalization of physician-assisted suicide. Even medical ethicists, who ponder the hard cases every day, are divided on the issue.

Will the Supreme Court have to wade into this issue, now that an appeals court has spoken so forcefully? Not necessarily. As a number of court-watchers have observed, the current court has shown great resourcefulness in avoiding some controversial cases, sometimes on procedural grounds, sometimes with no explanation.

That approach may not always best serve the public interest. But in this case, it seems far preferable for the courts to step aside while Americans think this issue through. Faster than we realize, they are doing so -- on juries, in hospital rooms, in family discussions and in public campaigns over voter-initiated referendums.

There will always be disagreement over the right to die. But if we let the debate proceed as it has been, state by state, case by case, we are more likely to reach a consensus that will spare us the stalemate of hostility and alienation that still marks the abortion debate.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

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