TOPICS > Politics

Right to Die Denied

June 26, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: In a unanimous decision the court upheld laws in New York and Washington State that make it a crime for doctors to prescribe lethal drugs for terminally ill patients who no longer want to live. For more details on today’s ruling we’re joined by NewsHour regular Stuart Taylor, correspondent for the “American Lawyer” and “Legal Times.” Stuart, first brief background. What exactly did these laws say and who challenged them?

STUART TAYLOR, The American Lawyer: These were laws in Washington State and New York State. Both of them are general laws that–with deepest, darker roots that say it’s a crime to assist someone else in committing suicide. It would apply to anyone, not just a doctor–would apply to you or me helping each other. Two sets of doctors and patients–all of the patients are now dead–in New York and Washington respectively–challenged these laws on various constitutional grounds. They found their way to the Supreme Court with the two lower courts each having struck down the laws as applied to mentally competent, terminally ill people who are suffering and want a doctor to give them say a lethal medication. But the two lower courts used different constitutional rationales in striking the laws down.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. So broadly on what grounds now did the Supreme Court say these laws were constitutional, uphold these laws?

STUART TAYLOR: Broadly speaking, two separate opinions with Chief Justice Rehnquist writing for the five justice core majority in each case, they held that neither the 14th Amendment due process clause, which was the provision relied on by the court in the Washington State case, nor the 14th Amendment equal protection clause, which bars discrimination between different groups of people, makes these laws invalid in any general sense; however, there are separate opinions by five justices, and most particularly Justice O’Connor, Sandra Day O’Connor, which goes some distance in various ways towards saying, well, we do think there might be some kind of a right in a particular case for an individual suffering patient to die with dignity or at least not to be forced to continue suffering, but the way the broad sweeping decision, the lower court striking down these laws as applied to broad groups of undefined people went too far.

So there’s a mix–there’s something for both sides in this decision, but bottom line, both lower courts reversed both of these laws against an assisted-suicide stand. The possibility that some individual patient might be able to get the court to say this law doesn’t–is unconstitutional as applied to me is left open by–at least by Justice O’Connor and four others.

MARGARET WARNER: So did the court rule on the fundamental question about whether you or I have the right to get medical help to commit suicide?

STUART TAYLOR: Yes. They say the general proposition, there’s no such constitutional right. But they leave open the possibility that, for example, if you are on your death bed, you are clearly dying, you’re in horrible pain, and for some reason morphine isn’t working to relieve your pain, you could ask the doctor to give you such a heavy dose of morphine that it would, in effect, hasten death, even though it also relieves pain. In fact, the court says that these two state laws don’t prevent that sort of thing from being done.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean already?

STUART TAYLOR: Yeah. And they leave open the possibility that if some state law either does prevent that, or is interpreted as preventing that, that the court would step in and say that’s unconstitutional as applied. The general thrust of the decision–especially the Rehnquist opinions–is the states can manage this perfectly well; there’s lots of legislative activity going on in the states; there’s no reason to think that the court needs to step in with some grand constitutional rule. They leave this little window open of, well, maybe in some case as applied.

MARGARET WARNER: So you’re saying that the court was saying the state legislatures are perfectly free to go ahead and explore and come up with different remedies to this; they weren’t precluding something?

STUART TAYLOR: No. They’re saying, in fact, the–on the one hand the Chief Justice emphasizes that states since for many years almost all states and some recently have had laws saying no, no assisting in suicide, doctor or otherwise.

On the other hand, Oregon, for example, had a referendum in 1994 in which the voters by a narrow margin allowed a certain position on assisted suicide; nothing in this decision today says Oregon can’t do that.

Now, as it happens, the state legislature has now got a new referendum in Oregon that’s going to be on the ballot this fall to try and repeal the other one, but the spirit of the decision is to leave a fair amount of latitude for state legislatures and referenda to experiment with different ways of handling all the difficulties of end of life that are created basically by medical technology that allow people to keep–to allow them to keep people alive long after they’re able to do much of either.

MARGARET WARNER: And briefly, one of the arguments made certainly by the Justice Department was slippery slope argument; that physician-assisted suicide could lead to euthanasia. Did the court–

STUART TAYLOR: Yes. Chief Justice Rehnquist specifically referred to that among also the dangers of abuse. He specifically said in announcing it before the bench, we don’t want a slide to euthanasia as in the Netherlands, and that’s one of the reasons to uphold these laws.