Clinton administration warns high court against physician-assisted suicides Justice Dept. lawyers file written arguments

Md. signs brief from states

November 13, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration warned the Supreme Court yesterday that a ruling to let doctors aid in suicide would lead to needless deaths across America, ending the lives of many vulnerable people.

Predicting that assisted suicide could not be controlled once allowed, the administration advocated power for states to outlaw the practice -- preferably by a total ban, with no exceptions.

Any exception, the administration contended, "will lead to the deaths of many persons who are not competent, who are not terminally ill, and who do not make truly voluntary requests for assistance" in suicide. Many people would die because of mistaken medical judgments about how ill they are and about their ability to withstand pain, it argued.

The government's written arguments were among two dozen documents, all opposed to assisted suicide, filed in cases from the states of New York and Washington. Advocates of a right to assisted suicide will file their views Dec. 10.

Among those joining the opposition yesterday was Maryland, which signed a brief with 18 other states and Puerto Rico, urging the court to leave the issue to the states rather than making it a national constitutional question.

Two federal appeals courts have ruled that the terminally ill who are mentally competent to choose their time of death should have a constitutional right to do so. The justices will hold hearings on those cases early next year.

The administration's brief against assisted suicide carried out President Clinton's vow to do what he could to block the practice. This marked the first time that the administration had spelled out in full a constitutional argument in opposition.

Justice Department lawyers sought to maneuver around a problem that surfaced as they studied the constitutional issue: how to challenge a right to end one's life without undercutting a woman's right to abortion, both of which are rooted in a constitutional right of privacy.

Abortion, the lawyers contended, involves a "combination of constitutionally protected interests" far beyond the problem of pain and suffering that terminally ill patients encounter.

Women would lose far more of their "personal autonomy" without an abortion right than terminally ill patients would without a right to end their suffering when they choose, the brief said.

The brief conceded that terminally ill patients have some basis for their claim to constitutional protection when they seek to overcome pain and suffering. But that interest would have to yield, the government contended, when a state bans assisted suicide in order to protect those who do not really want to die but may be coerced or induced by others.

Pub Date: 11/13/96

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