Lambda Criticizes High Court's Ruling Against Assisted Suicide

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'Although most of the judges agreed to leave open an important door for future relief, the immediate result of today's ruling is cruel'
June 26, 1997

(NEW YORK, June 26, 1997) -- Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund said today that the United States Supreme Court's unanimous refusal today to recognize the right of competent, terminally ill people to hasten death and end unbearable suffering is cruel, despite unexpected empathy from a majority of the judges.

"Although most of the judges in concurring opinions agreed to leave an important door open for future relief, the immediate result of today's decisions written by Chief Justice Rehnquist is cruel," said Catherine Hanssens, who assisted with Lambda's amicus brief to the Supreme Court.

"People with AIDS have the right to make their own medical decisions right until the very end. Courts should not stand in the way of people using assistance from a trusted physician to end suffering when remission or real improvement is not in the cards," she said.

Hanssens stressed that today's decision, while not upholding the right to assisted suicide under the federal Constitution in the two cases before the Supreme Court, does not ban states from allowing the practice under their own constitutions and clearly left the door open for future cases to reach the high court again.

"In separate opinions, five judges of the nine-judge court have provided advocates and policy makers with a detailed map of the route to eventual recognition of this right to self-determination and death-with-dignity for people with AIDS and other serious illnesses," she said.

"Even without support from the medical and legal establishments, doctors and other caretakers already provide aid covertly to many patients who choose to exercise their right to die when the alternatives are either unimaginable pain or indefinite confinement in a morphine-induced limbo. Recognizing and regulating this reality will curb abuse, not encourage it," said Hanssens, AIDS Project director for Lambda, the oldest and largest legal organization for lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV and AIDS.

Lambda Executive Director Kevin Cathcart said, "These cases have real importance for people with AIDS, who long have struggled to play an active role in their treatment and to end the stigma attached to their medical problems and needs." He continued, "They and their loved ones may face intensely difficult choices when the quality and joy of life are overwhelmed by irreversible illness and suffering. The right to determine whether meaningful life has come to an end is a fundamental aspect of personal autonomy."

Lambda Legal Director Beatrice Dohrn said, "Recognition of the right to assisted suicide would simply allow regulation of an existing practice without penalizing physicians who provide appropriate, compassionate care."

In State of Washington v. Glucksberg and Vacco v. Quill, Lambda was joined by Gay Men's Health Crisis and five individuals with disabilities in a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of people with AIDS. Gay men with end-stage AIDS were plaintiffs in the Washington and New York state cases.

In a similar lawsuit now pending in Florida, Lambda and advocates for people with disabilities submitted an amicus brief on behalf of a terminally ill man with AIDS. This lawsuit, based on the state constitutional right to privacy, also argues for the right to autonomy in decision-making for people with disabilities.

"Medical organizations that oppose this right should focus instead on the deeply troubling public perception that doctors cannot be trusted to protect their patients' interests during the final stages of their care, especially when the tragic limitations of pain relief for end-stage illnesses are well documented," Dohrn said.

In March 1996, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling en banc in Washington (then titled Compassion in Dying v. State of Washington), praised by legal analysts for its depth and eloquence, which concluded that a state law prohibiting physician-assisted suicide by medication violated the Fourteenth Amendment. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated New York's prohibition in Vacco v. Quill on more narrow grounds, and the Supreme Court heard the appeal of both cases this past January.

During earlier federal appeals, Lambda joined friend-of-the-court briefs in Washington and Vacco. Hanssens assisted Andrew Batavia of McDermott, Will & Emery with preparation of the separate amicus brief for the U.S. Supreme Court.

(State of Washington v. Glucksberg, 96-110, and Vacco v. Quill, 95-1858)



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