Weighing in on two of the most closely watched cases of the Supreme Court term, the Clinton administration Tuesday urged the justices to find that the Constitution does not guarantee to terminally ill people the right to a doctor’s assistance in hastening death.
In two briefs filed by Solicitor General Walter Dellinger, the administration supported the effort by the states of New York and Washington to defend their bans on physician-assisted suicide. Two federal appeals courts overturned the states’ laws in separate rulings earlier this year, and the justices will hear the two appeals in January.
The federal government was not a party to either case and had not previously stated a legal position on the assisted suicide issue. It was under no obligation to participate at the Supreme Court level.
Explaining its reason for participating, the administration said the hundreds of medical centers and nursing homes the government runs through the Department of Veterans Affairs operate under a policy that permits patients to request the withdrawal or withholding of life-sustaining medical treatment but that forbids “the active hastening of the moment of death.”
In the cases before the court, the two lower courts effectively rejected this distinction. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, ruling in the Washington case, said the Supreme Court’s recognition in a 1990 decision of the right to refuse unwanted life-sustaining treatment “necessarily recognizes a liberty interest in hastening one’s own death.”
In the New York case, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it violated the constitutional guarantee of equal protection for the state to permit terminally ill patients to refuse life-prolonging care while at the same time forbidding physician-assisted suicide as an option.
The administration told the court Tuesday: “There is an important and common-sense distinction between withdrawing artificial supports so that a disease will progress to its inevitable end, and providing chemicals to be used to kill someone.”
The heart of the brief’s analysis was a balancing test between individual interests and those of the state. While the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of due process encompasses a “significant liberty interest” in “avoiding severe pain and suffering,” the brief said, states could permissibly conclude that they had “an overriding interest in maintaining a prohibition against all assisted suicides.”
One notable part of the administration’s brief in the Washington case was its discussion of the relationship between abortion and assisted suicide.
The 9th Circuit had made the Supreme Court’s abortion precedents a central part of its conclusion, equating the two as “choices central to personal dignity and autonomy” with which the government could not interfere.
Administration lawyers who strongly support abortion rights have been worried that if the linkage between the two issues remains so tight, the Supreme Court could undermine its abortion precedents in the course of overturning the assisted suicide ruling. Consequently, the brief seeks to disentangle the two, placing the right to abortion on a distinctly higher constitutional plane.
“The fundamental right to choose an abortion rests on a combination of constitutionally protected interests, of which avoiding the pain and suffering associated with being forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy is but one part,” the brief said, adding: “By forcing a woman to continue an unwanted pregnancy, the state requires a woman to undertake the birth of, and responsibility for, another person in a way that has no counterpart in our laws.”