Ban on assisted suicide sought Administration set to ask Supreme Court to deny protection

Clinton made pledge in '92

Justice Department tries not to undermine other privacy rights

November 12, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Fulfilling a promise made by President Clinton, the Justice Department expects to ask the Supreme Court today to deny constitutional protection to assisted suicide.

In a legal brief speaking for the administration, the department will line up with the American Medical Association and two states in opposing any right of terminally ill people to obtain lethal drugs, according to several lawyers who have been advising the administration.

The key issue the Justice Department has tried to resolve in discussions was how to oppose assisted suicide without making such a sweeping constitutional argument as to lead the Supreme Court to undermine other claims of privacy rights -- especially the right to abortion.

The department had been warned privately by women's rights groups that abortion rights might be endangered by what the administration urged the court to rule on assisted suicide.

The court will hold hearings early next year on two cases, filed by the states of New York and Washington, seeking to overturn lower-court rulings in favor of assisted suicide as a constitutional right.

One of those appeals courts based the right on a sweeping notion of privacy rights. The other court based the right on a concept of equality between those who wish life-support systems withdrawn and those who wish to obtain lethal drugs to end their lives at the moment they decide. The Supreme Court had ruled in 1990 that a person has a right to choose to end life-support treatment.

Meanwhile, the American Medical Association is preparing to file its own briefs today to oppose any role for doctors in a person's choice to end life at the moment of his or her choosing.

But supporters of assisted suicide will present support for their own side from within the medical profession.

Under the court's rules, those who oppose the right to assisted suicide must file their views by today; the written arguments of supporters must be filed by Dec. 10. The case is likely to draw more pro- and anti-filings than perhaps any case in court history, according to lawyers involved.

Clinton's view has been known since 1992, when, as a candidate for the White House, he said at a Detroit "town meeting" that he did not support a right to doctor-assisted suicide.

He promised: "I would not do anything to support it nationally. I certainly would do what I could to oppose what I think is wrong."

The Clinton administration declined in April to send any representative to testify on the subject at a House subcommittee hearing but sent a letter noting the president's opposition.

The filing in the Supreme Court will mark the first time that the administration has publicly added its weight to the opposition to constitutional safeguards for assisted suicide.

One of the lawyers who will argue for constitutional protection, Laurence H. Tribe, said last week that he would make a narrow claim for the right to assisted suicide. It would leave the states with wide leeway to regulate the process to prevent abuses, said Tribe, a Harvard law professor.

Pub Date: 11/12/96

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