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Death, Legal and Illegal


January 10, 1997

The issue of physician-assisted suicide has at last made its way before the Supreme Court. The first hearing, which took place on Wednesday, January 8, was uncharacteristically philosophical for this court. "Most of us have parents and other loved ones who have been through the dying process, and we've thought about these things," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out during the session.

The controversy surrounding the issue is not new. Writing in The Atlantic in Death, Legal and Illegal (1974), theology professor Daniel C. Maguire considered some of the legal ramifications of deliberate, non-malevolent termination of human life, focusing primarily on cases of "mercy killing." He suggested that current United States law is incapable of addressing the subtleties of mercy-killing cases: "Mercy killings . . . do not fit into any of the categories of unjustifiable homicide available in American law. They are not murder in the first or second degree, nor are they a form of criminal manslaughter." He expressed a hope that a better-elaborated set of laws would soon be enacted so that assisted-suicide cases could be considered on their own terms rather than in the context of laws designed for very different situations.

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