Euthanasia In rare instances, societies justify killing. It is accepted in war, in self-defense, and, within the United States, for punishment of awful crimes. This week, the Supreme Court considers another exception: whether doctors should be allowed to speed the end for people who are terminally ill. The issues explored on these pages and in the court center on the question: Do circumstances ever justify transforming doctors from healers to deliverers of death? Noel David Earley believes they do. The 48-year-old Rhode Island man has watched his muscles atrophy from Lou Gehrig’s disease and is convinced that a doctor should be allowed to end his suffering without fear of prosecution.

To acting Solicitor General Walter Dellinger, however, the difference between providing relief for severe suffering and aiding the purposeful taking of another life is profound. If the law permits doctors to cross that line, he argues, they and family members may pressure people who are dying to end their lives against their wills–to consider it their duty to die. When people ask for help in dying, experts say, it’s usually not solely because of their illness. People who seek death are motivated by pain, despair and other things for which the proper solution is better care. But Earley says he chooses to die: He’s in no pain and is not depressed.

He struggles to speak and soon will find it hard to swallow. Eventually, he won’t be able to breathe. A medical professional helped him collect a fatal mix of morphine and Demerol pills, which Earley plans to take while he still has the choice. For the United States, the choice is whether to let doctors help people like Earley die and, if so, how. Sociology.

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