WASHINGTON (June 26, 1997) -- Mark Chopko, General Counsel for the U.S. Bishops, called the June 26 Supreme Court decision denying a right to assisted suicide a "benchmark" to guide legislation in end-of-life issues. His statement follows.
"The United States Supreme Court today ruled unanimously that there is no federal constitutional right to assistance in committing suicide. The Court strongly reaffirmed that a State has an 'unqualified interest in the preservation of human life.' That State's interest, the Court ruled, is not diminished when the person is terminally ill. The Court's decisions in both the Washington and New York cases offer both encouragement and a challenge.
"The Court reaffirms centuries of tradition in the common law, that one may not engage another to cause one's own death. In our constitutional tradition, the Court confirms that, in pursuit of Liberty guaranteed in the Constitution, one cannot demand the means to end Life. Moreover, the Court confirms a distinction -- that permeates law, medical practice, and common sense -- between 'letting' someone die by discontinuing burdensome medical interventions and 'making' someone die by assisted suicide. The clarity of these decisions should serve as a benchmark for other courts facing the same issue in this country and around the world. Indeed the Court strongly recognizes the risks inherent in considering a legalization of assisted suicide. In its opinion, the Court called attention to the State's interests not only in preserving human life, but in preventing the death of vulnerable, poor, and disadvantaged persons who lack access to adequate medical care or who suffer from depression or untreated pain. The Court confirmed that assisted suicide could undermine the trust in the physician-patient relationship 'by blurring the time-honored distinction between healing and harming.'
"But the Court has also issued a challenge. In ruling that a state may continue to ban assisting a suicide, it acknowledged that the debate over the legalization of assisted suicide will continue in the political process. It has yet to face the legitimacy of the Oregon law that would allow assistance in suicide. As a matter of public policy, for all of the reasons given by the Court today, assisted suicide is unsound and sure to render those already made vulnerable by disease, poverty, or neglect, even more vulnerable. It will be the duty of courts, legislators, and all people of good will not to shrink from facing these difficult questions. True compassion for the dying is not shown in making them die, but in providing aid, palliative care, and the comfort of human concern.
"As a personal note, I mourn the death today of Archbishop Thomas Murphy of Seattle, who, in the face of his own terminal illness, championed the Washington law against the arguments for assisted suicide. His death today as the decisions were being announced, after a bout with cancer and pneumonia, cannot go unnoticed, nor his life and work in this cause, unappreciated."