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Abortion access, assisted suicide cases await

The Supreme Court takes up one of the new term's most significant cases just a few days after John Roberts occupies the center chair on the bench as the nation's 17th chief justice.

The Supreme Court takes up one of the new term's most significant cases just a few days after John Roberts occupies the center chair on the bench as the nation's 17th chief justice.

On Oct. 5, Oregon defends its Death with Dignity Act. It allows doctors to prescribe a lethal dose to terminally ill patients, who can use it to end their own lives.

The state's lawyers say the law allows mentally competent adults facing the end of life "to control the time, place, and manner of death."  In the seven years the act has been in effect, 208 Oregon residents have chosen physician-assisted dying.

Don James, a Portland cancer patient, took advantage of the law after discovering that his prostate cancer had spread to his bones.  Getting a prescription for the dose, he says, gave him a sense of security.

"That's all that I need at this point. If it happens to be my future that really dreadful things happen, I would want to be able to have weapons to combat that," James says.

But three years ago, the federal government warned Oregon doctors that they would lose authority to prescribe most prescription drugs if they approved lethal doses under the state law.

"Assisting suicide is not a legitimate medical purpose," the Justice Department concluded.  Lawyers for the state sued to block that legal interpretation and have so far prevailed in the lower courts.

But some Oregon doctors agree with the federal government's position.

Says Dr. Kenneth Stevens, a cancer specialist, "I think people need to ask the question: for what disease is suicide a treatment?"

If Oregon wins in the Supreme Court, other states may pursue similar laws.  A version of the Death with Dignity Act foundered earlier this year in California's legislature.

Juveniles and abortion rights
The high profile issue of abortion returns to the Supreme Court this term in a case from New Hampshire, where a recently passed law requires parental notification for women under 18 seeking the procedure.  It was immediately challenged because it makes no exception for abortions deemed necessary to protect a woman's health.

Opponents of the law say it puts too big a restriction on a constitutional guarantee.

"Protection for women's health is at the core of the right that the Supreme Court recognized in Roe v. Wade," argues Jennifer Dalven of the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project.

The case also asks the court to decide how strict a legal test to apply when reviewing challenges to abortion restrictions.  The standard set by the court could be used to evaluate the constitutionality of the federal partial-birth abortion ban, now mired in federal court battles.

Military recruting access
In another case, colleges and law professors are fighting a federal law requiring them to give military recruiters equal access to campuses.

"The law conveys to the school an expectation on the part of the nation, certainly on the part of the Congress, that the military should be allowed to recruit on a par with any other employer," says Bill Carr, a Defense Department personnel policy official.

But the schools argue that the military should not have equal campus access, because the don't ask-don't tell rule  discriminates against gays.

The court will also consider whether the Constitution allows states to limit the amount political candidates can spend, a case that could affect the future of money in politics.  And the justices will be asked to decide how strong new evidence must be before death row inmates can mount new challenges to their sentences.