Washington –The U.S. Supreme Court January 8 appeared deeply skeptical about proposals to create a new constitutional right for terminally ill Americans to get the help of a doctor in committing suicide.

During arguments on the right-to-die controversy, the high court did not take a firm position on the issue, but several justices expressed reservations about overturning existing state bans on doctor-assisted suicide.

As sign-carrying protesters on both sides of the dispute marched outside the building, the justices grappled with whether to give constitutional protection to what has never been previously allowed.

Lawyers arguing in favour of the new right said mentally competent, terminally ill patients should be allowed to ask their doctor for help in ending their lives to relieve needless pain and suffering.

But government lawyers replied that medical groups oppose doctor-assisted suicide, said it has never been allowed in the nation’s history and warned it could lead to dangerous abuse.

Walter Dellinger, the Clinton administration’s top courtroom lawyer, argued to the nine justices that current assisted suicide bans should be maintained.

“It would be a grave mistake for the court to impose on 50 states what has never been tried in a single state,” Dellinger said, reflecting President Clinton’s repeated opposition to doctor-assisted suicide.

Danger involved

Dellinger warned of the danger from making assisted suicide legal and easy to obtain. “The least costly treatment for any illness is lethal medication.”

Kathryn Tucker, representing physicians challenging the Washington state ban, said a patient should have a right to make their own decision about “bodily integrity,” free from government interference.

But Justice Sandra Day O’Connor expressed concern about the argument. “it would result in a flow of cases through the court system for heaven knows how long.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy said state legislatures, reflecting the views of the people, may be the proper place to decide the moral and other issues surrounding assisted suicide, not the court.

“You are asking us, in effect, to declare unconstitutional the laws in 50 states,” he said.

Justice David Souter said more experience around the world may be needed before an informed judgment can be reached on the issue, and added that for the court to make it legal now “would just be guess-work.”

William Williams, representing the state of Washington, said assisted suicide has only been allowed in the Netherlands and Australia’s Northern Territory. He said Canada and Britain recently rejected the idea.

The case did not involve Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a retired pathologist in Michigan who has publicly acknowledged attending more than 40 deaths since 1990. He has never been convicted, though he has been tried.

-Reuters News Service