Stepping into the most profound issue on the Supreme Court's docket, the Clinton administration Tuesday threw its weight against doctor-assisted suicide.
Justice Department lawyers, reflecting President Clinton's publicly expressed views, urged the justices not to recognize any constitutional right of terminally ill _ but mentally able _ patients to choose to end their suffering by obtaining lethal medication from doctors.
In two "friend-of-the-court" legal briefs, the administration joined numerous states, Catholic groups, the American Medical Association and others in asking the Supreme Court to reinstate New York and Washington state laws barring doctor-aided suicide. Federal appeals courts struck down those statutes this year.
While the federal government is not directly involved in the issue, its views usually carry special weight with the justices.
Briefs from backers of doctor-assisted suicide are due next month. The Supreme Court is expected to schedule oral arguments in January and announce a ruling by July.
The case for a right of dying patients to doctor-assisted suicide "strikes a responsive chord in many people," and individuals do have a constitutionally recognized interest in avoiding severe pain or suffering, government lawyers acknowledged.
But, they said, the decisions of more than 40 states to prohibit doctors from prescribing lethal medication at the request of dying patients are justified by the government's overriding interest in protecting life.
Much of the administration's argument stressed the risk that recognizing a right of the terminally ill to lethal medication would cause needless deaths.
Terminally ill persons who contemplate suicide often suffer from undiagnosed depression and inadequately treated pain, or may be susceptible to influence by doctors unable to cure them or by family members eager to cut costs or end the debilitated existence of a loved one, the administration said.
Writing as a man nearing death, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Chicago, sent a personal letter to the court opposing physician-assisted suicide.
"I am at end of my earthly life," wrote the cardinal, who has been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. "There is much that I have contemplated these last few months of my illness, but as one who is dying I have especially come to appreciate the gift of life."
He told the court that recognizing a legal right to physician-assisted suicide would endanger society by eroding legal protection of human life.