WASHINGTON (AP) – In a unanimous decision that will echo through hospitals and homes, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in late June that terminally ill people do not have a constitutional right to doctor-assisted suicide.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, whose wife died in 1991 after a long battle with ovarian cancer, wrote the decision. He said the idea of having someone help end another’s life conflicts with the nation’s history, legal traditions and practices.

The court upheld laws in New York and Washington state that make in a crime for doctors to give life-ending drugs to mentally competent but terminally ill patients who no longer want to live. Lower courts had invalidated both laws. Most states have similar laws.

“The history of the law’s treatment of assisted suicide in this country has been and continues to be one of the rejection of nearly all efforts to permit it,” Rehnquist said in reference to the Washington state law.

“That being the case, our decisions lead us to conclude that the asserted ‘right’ to assistance in committing suicide is not a fundamental liberty interest protected by the due process clause.”

The Hemlock Society, the nation’s largest organization concerned with right-to-die issues, said it was disappointed but not surprised by the ruling. “For us , it is back to business as usual,” director Faye Girsh said in a statement.

Geoffrey Fieger, attorney for Dr. Jack Kevorkian, was asked if the ruling would stop Kevorkian’s campaign for assisted suicide. “Not to Dr. Kevorkian. Hell, no,” he said.

In deciding in the New York case, Rehnquist said such bans on assisted suicide do not violate equal protection rights.

The decision, while bound to have an enormous impact on the continuing debate over assisted suicide, certainly will not be the last word. State still might be free to enact measures allowing doctor-assisted suicide.

Oregon already has done so, but that referendum vote is still being challenged in court. And the Oregon legislature has agreed to send the issue back to the state’s voters in November.

Congress passed a bill in April to keep federal funds from being used to pay for any doctor-assisted suicide. The bill’s sponsors said such legislation was needed because Oregon health officials intend to use federal Medicaid funds to pay for such suicides as a form of “comfort care.”

In signing the bill into law, President Bill Clinton said, “I continue to believe that assisted suicide is wrong. And while I have deep sympathy for those who suffer greatly from incurable illness, I believe that to endorse assisted suicide would set us on a disturbing and perhaps dangerous path.”

Meanwhile, 21 state legislatures this year considered bills dealing with pain treatment for dying patients.

Texas and Minnesota enacted laws that allow doctors to prescribe controlled substances for terminally ill people. South Dakota required medical schools to teach students about hospice care and pain management.

Maryland has begun a four-year project to reduce financial, medical and legal barriers blamed for causing unnecessary pain for some dying people.

The court first recognized a constitutional right to die in 1990 when it ruled that terminally ill people can refuse life-sustaining medical treatment.

Rehnquist was the author of that decision, but he said now there is a difference between a doctor respecting a patient’s right to refuse treatment for a disease that will kill that person and the doctor assisting the patient in suicide.

“We disagree with (the) claim that the distinction between refusing livesaving medical treatment and assisted suicide is arbitrary and irrational,” Rehnquist said.

The profound issues of life and death had made the New York and Washington cases among the most closely watched in the court’s history.

Gerry Brosso