The Clinton administration urged the Supreme Court on Tuesday to reject the idea that the law should allow terminally ill persons to get medical help in ending their lives.
"There is no obvious stopping point," if the court upholds a constitutional right to assisted suicide, Solicitor General Walter Dellinger told the justices.
Dellinger acknowledged that the cases before the court concern only persons who are dying and want to end their suffering. But a ruling in their favor, he said, could result in many others being "steered toward suicide" by family members or their doctors.
Because this "right to die" could be easily abused, it is wiser not to recognize it for anyone, even those who are near death, said Dellinger, the administration's chief lawyer before the court. Instead, it should "preserve the distinction between killing a patient and letting a patient die," he concluded.
The brief, said to represent President Clinton's personal view, was sent to the high court on the final day for those who wish to support the legal case presented by the states of Washington and New York. Their laws against assisted suicide were struck down as unconstitutional earlier this year. The justices will hear their appeals in mid-January.
By Dec. 10, briefs will be filed on behalf of "Compassion in Dying," a Seattle group that represents several terminally ill patients and their doctors. They seek a change in the law to permit doctors to prescribe lethal medication for patients who are expected to die within six months.
In 47 states, including California, it is a crime to aid anyone in committing suicide.
California Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren and the nation's leading health care groups joined the administration in urging the court to reject assisted suicide.
"The relevant state interests clearly outweigh the asserted interests [of the dying persons] in suicide and assisted suicide," Lungren said in his brief, filed on behalf of California and 18 other states. States, he argued, have a duty to protect and preserve human life in general, as well as to maintain the "ethical integrity of the medical profession" and shield "the poor and minorities from exploitation." These interests would be jeopardized if the law allowed doctors to help some patients commit suicide, Lungren said.
The legal authority to take a life "is a power that most health care professionals do not want and could not control," said the American Medical Assn. Its brief was joined by the American Nurses Assn., the American Psychiatric Assn. and 43 other medical societies.
Currently, the law gives patients the right to refuse "unwanted medical treatment." This means that doctors are empowered to remove feeding tubes that keep patients alive and shut off respirators that keep them breathing. Privately, many doctors admit that they sometimes hook up a "morphine drip" to gravely ill patients, knowing it will soon bring about their deaths.
"Through these means, patients can avoid entrapment in a prolonged, painful or overtly medicalized dying process," the AMA said.
It condemned the lower courts for going one step further. "Once established, the right to physician-assisted suicide would create profound danger for many ill persons with undiagnosed depression and inadequately treated pain," the AMA said.
Advocates said that they agree the right to assisted suicide could be easily abused but that the answer is for states to pass strict regulations.
Harvard law professor Laurence H. Tribe said that the AMA and state officials should work on new rules for "carefully regulating how doctors treat their dying patients in order to avoid abuse," rather than barring all dying persons from getting help in ending their lives.
Tribe, a renowned constitutional law expert, will argue one of the two cases in the high court in support of assisted suicide.
Besides raising profound medical issues, the cases involve a clash over the meaning of the Constitution, which says that the government may not deprive any person of "liberty without due process of law."
Liberals have long argued that guarantee should be interpreted generously to protect individuals from government meddling in their private lives. Conservatives have said that it should be interpreted narrowly in line with history and tradition.
"I'm pleased the administration [in its brief] recognizes constitutional liberty can be invoked upon behalf of a dying person whose suffering becomes intractable," Tribe said Tuesday. "But I am disappointed the administration is willing to see that liberty sacrificed to the state's interest in drawing simple lines."