This Week

Issue: "Down Syndrome = Death Sentence?," Jan. 18, 1997

Land of liberty interests

They camped out on the sidewalk between the Supreme Court building and the U.S. Capitol. On this cold January 8 predawn morning, a reporter from The Washington Post interviewed several hopeful spectators, some huddled and shivering under blankets, who wanted to be in the courtroom for that day's oral arguments over physician-assisted suicide. As the dawn broke, the reporter was interviewing a 53-year-old wheelchair-bound woman when Harvard's Lawrence Tribe walked by on his way to make his pro-euthanasia arguments to the Supreme Court. The woman, Eleanor Smith, stopped the interview as the smiling, well-dressed law professor passed. &quotIt's creepier than seeing a man with a gun," she remarked. &quotIt's like someone who's calling you softly, whispering, 'This is for your own good.'" Inside, Mr. Tribe spoke louder. He made a philosophical, this-is-for-your-own-good argument: &quotI think the liberty interest in this case is ... when facing imminent and inevitable death, not to be forced by the government to endure a degree of pain and suffering that one can relieve only by being completely unconscious. Not to be forced into that choice, that the liberty is the freedom, at this threshold at the end of life, ... to have some voice in the question of how much pain one is really going through." &quotWhy does the voice just arrive when death is imminent?" asked Justice David Souter. According to press accounts, none of the justices seemed impressed with this legal concept. Mr. Tribe answered: &quotThe court's jurisprudence has identified, I think for good reason, that life, though it feels continuous to many of us, has certain critical thresholds: Birth, marriage, child-bearing. I think death is one of those thresholds. That is, it is the last chapter of one's life after all...." Justice Antonin Scalia seemed to have heard enough: &quotAll of this is in the Constitution? ... You see, this is lovely philosophy. But you want us to frame a constitutional rule on the basis of that?" Yes, he did. Eleanor Smith hopes, for the sake of people like her, that &quotlovely philosophy" doesn't carry the day.

Silence the Speaker

After Newt Gingrich Jan. 7 became the first Republican Speaker of the House in 68 years to be reelected, House Ethics Committee members began 14 hours of deliberations to determine how to deal with ethics charges against Mr. Gingrich. Members of the panel scheduled a vote on his punishment Jan. 21. According to two major polls, many Americans have already rendered a judgment on Mr. Gingrich's punishment. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found about 40 percent of Americans believe Mr. Gingrich should resign from the House altogether; two-thirds of respondents said he should not have been elected Speaker of the House. A CBS poll said 51 percent believe the charges were serious enough to justify his replacement as Speaker. Nine Republicans also felt that way. A handful of moderates--led by Jim Leach of Iowa--joined conservatives Linda Smith of Washington, Michael Forbes of New York, and Mark Neumann of Wisconsin in voting against Mr. Gingrich. The Speaker won reelection with just three more votes than necessary. &quotTo the degree I was too brash, too self-confident, or too pushy, I apologize," Mr. Gingrich declared after his victory, then outlined an ambitious legislative agenda for 1997.

Albright alright

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Secretary of State nominee Madeleine Albright appeared to be headed for a smooth confirmation. After her first day of Senate confirmation hearings Jan. 8, no serious opposition had developed. Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, criticized the Clinton administration, but expressed hope Ms. Albright could &quotbring some coherence, direction, and fresh ideas to America's foreign policy." Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) asked the secretary-designate whether she supported Sen. Helms's proposal for trimming the government's foreign-policy apparatus by abolishing three agencies and turning over their functions to the State Department. Ms. Albright said she would remain &quotopen minded."

Abortion and breast cancer

A team of Danish scientists weighed in on the question of whether having an abortion increases a woman's risk of breast cancer. Their answer: &quotNo." The Danish study--conducted in a country where abortion is unrestricted and government-paid--found no &quotoverall increased ... risk for the average woman." But Joel Brind of Baruch College in New York, the author of an earlier study that did find an increased cancer risk from abortion, claims the Danish study is &quotpolitically correct [but] not scientifically correct." Dr. Brind's theory, also held by a number of other scientists, is that when pregnancy-related hormonal changes are interrupted unnaturally, rapidly reproducing breast cells are left especially prone to becoming cancerous.

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