John Roberts Quote on Assisted Suicide May Provide Insight

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jul 28, 2005   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

John Roberts Quote on Assisted Suicide May Provide Insight Email this article
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by Steven Ertelt Editor
July 28, 2005

Washington, DC ( — John Roberts’ view on abortion is drawing all of the attention as the nation watches the battle unfold over President Bush’s nominee to the Supreme Court. However, with the death of Terri Schiavo, issues like assisted suicide and euthanasia are more prevalent and observers say a Roberts comment on the topic provides some interesting insight.

In a 1997 case, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that no right to assisted suicide exists, but states could decide whether to allow assisted suicides to take place.

In the cases, Washington v. Glucksburg and Vacco v. Quill, the court upheld laws against assisted suicide in Washington and New York.

In an interview that year with the PBS news program "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," Roberts commented on the rulings.

"I think it’s important not to have too narrow a view of protecting personal rights," he said.

"The right that was protected in the assisted-suicide case was the right of the people through their legislatures to articulate their own views on the policies that should apply in those cases of terminating life, and not to have the court interfering in those policy decisions," Roberts explained. "That’s an important right."

Observers say the remarks point to Roberts’ attitude of judicial restraint — of not allowing courts to overturn the will of the people as handed down through legislation approved by the state legislature.

Pro-life groups applaud that kind of view, which would typically favor upholding pro-life laws approved by Congress and state lawmakers.

Roberts’ thoughts on the issue of assisted suicide could foretell how he may rule on a case the Supreme Court will hear in its next term, starting in October.

The state of Oregon is appealing a Bush administration decision disallowing the use of federally controlled drugs in assisted suicides there. The Bush administration ruled that the use of drugs to kill patients does not constitute a legitimate medical purpose. It says the Controlled Substances Act, passed by Congress, allows it to prohibit using such narcotics.

Douglas Kmiec, a constitutional law professor and former Justice Department office under President Reagan, told Knight Ridder news service, "I think the quote highlights a general theme of his, which is to observe the separation of powers and the structural aspects of the Constitution with special care."

"And I think it’s important to point out that this approach is not a formula for a conservative court or a liberal court. It’s just a formula for a faithfully democratic court," Kmiec added.

Temple University law professor Craig Green said Roberts’ quote may not have much instructive value. While it shows Roberts favors upholding state laws against assisted suicide, it doesn’t speak to the upcoming Supreme Court debate involving a state law allowing the practice and federal efforts to curtail it.

"His quote has very careful phrasing that doesn’t commit him to any political position, and I tend to think there’s a whole slice of Washington life that endeavors to do that," Green told Knight Ridder.