An Issue That Will Not Die

Following Wednesday's arguments, the Supreme Court's leaning on whether there is a constitutional right to medical help in dying seems clear. During an intense two-hour session, justice after justice asked questions that strongly suggested that the court will reverse two lower court decisions upholding physician-assisted suicide. Such a reversal would leave the matter to be decided by individual states.

But however the court rules in these cases--the decision is expected by early summer--two things are already evident. First, the issue of whether terminally ill patients should be granted assistance in ending their lives is painful and fraught with complex and legitimate legal concerns. Questions about who should have the right and who should not preoccupied the justices, as did concerns about the role of physicians in assisting patients who wish to die. These same concerns spilled onto the courthouse steps Wednesday in loud demonstrations for and against legalizing assisted suicide.

Second, the very real suffering that led doctors and terminally ill patients to challenge criminal prohibitions against assisted suicide in the states of Washington and New York are in no small measure a result of the extraordinary advances in medical science that have occurred in recent decades. Those advances have meant longer and healthier lives, but they have also changed the way we die. Hundreds of thousands of Americans end their lives stranded in hospitals, in pain and connected to machines.

Regardless of how the high court rules, the anguished suffering of terminally ill patients and their families--and of Americans over the question of assisted suicide--is unlikely to end any time soon.

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