Dangerous context for assisted suicide Judicial decisions: Rulings from two appeals courts put issue on fast track.

April 12, 1996

WITH RECENT DECISIONS from two federal appeals courts overturning state bans on physician-assisted suicide, the Supreme Court soon may be grappling with this issue. In our view, the country does not need a sweeping decision either legalizing or banning the practice. Rather, we hope the high court will recognize that the public needs time and encouragement to settle this issue through the political process.

That process is already well under way, with vigorous debates taking place in many legislatures across the country. Several states have already gone through full-fledged campaigns on voter-initiated referendums. In Oregon, voters approved a law allowing physician-assisted suicide, and similar efforts in California and Washington state have come close to success.

These debates are healthy and necessary for a society troubled as much by the impersonal cruelty of life-prolonging medical techniques as by the fear that legalizing physician-assisted suicide could lead to subtle but real abuses. Although this issue shares many similarities with the abortion debate -- with the Catholic Church and anti-abortion activists already conducting vigorous campaigns against the practice -- there are important political differences.

Unlike the relatively young women most directly affected by abortion laws, people who have strong feelings about the ability to control end-of-life medical decisions are more numerous and politically active. In short, more people have a direct interest in physician-assisted suicide than in abortion, and they are more likely to vote.

Although both appellate court decisions found constitutional grounds for supporting the right to physician-assisted suicide, the Supreme Court may be be persuaded by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals' decision on a New York law, written by an appointee of President Ronald Reagan. The New York decision was based primarily on the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law, rather than the concept of a broader liberty interest found in the decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

But neither decision takes into account the most troubling aspect of physician-assisted suicide -- the context of a health care system in which 50 million Americans either have no health coverage or are inadequately insured. Until that issue is resolved, it will be impossible for any branch of government to design adequate safeguards against abuse.

Pub Date: 4/12/96

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