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Assisted suicide is a moral right

Op-ed by Thomas A. Bowden


Federal court’s decision sidesteps fundamental issue of morality.


In upholding Oregon’s assisted-suicide law, the Federal Appeals Court in California has reached the right result for the wrong reasons.

The court sidestepped the real issue—whether an individual has a right to commit suicide and decided the case on a technicality. Normally, the court said, it is a state government, not Washington, D.C., that decides what constitutes the practice of medicine. So, when John Ashcroft’s Justice Department decreed that a doctor’s prescription of lethal drugs to terminally ill patients can serve no “legitimate medical purpose,” the federal government overstepped its authority.

Notably, the court expressed no opinion on whether the Oregon law was correct in allowing doctors to make such prescriptions. “This case is simply about who gets to decide” that issue, said the court. And so Oregon’s Death with Dignity Law survives another day, and desperately sick patients will—for the moment at least—be allowed to choose the hour of their death, and to die with dignity.

The California court’s decision merely sidesteps the fundamental moral issue. Hopefully, the Supreme Court will soon revisit its erroneous 1997 decision in Washington v. Glucksberg, which held that individuals have no constitutionally protected right of suicide, and hence no right to obtain assistance in that act.

What the courts must grasp, if they are to justly resolve the debate over assisted suicide, is that there is no rational, secular basis upon which the government can properly prevent any individual from choosing to end his own life. Rather, it is religious mysticism that energizes Ashcroft and the Bush Administration into intimidating a doctor who dares to defy their dogma.

The conservatives’ outrage at the Oregon law stems from their belief that human life is a gift from the Lord, who puts us here on earth to carry out His will. Thus, the very idea of suicide is anathema, because one who “plays god” by causing his own death, or assisting in the death of another, insults his Maker and invites eternal damnation, not to mention divine retribution against the decadent society that permits such sinful behavior.

When religious conservatives like Ashcroft use secular laws to enforce their belief in God’s will, they threaten the central principle on which America was founded. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed, for the first time in the history of nations, that each person exists as an end in himself. This basic truth—which finds political expression in the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—means, in practical terms, that you need no one’s permission to live, and that no one may forcibly obstruct your efforts to achieve your own personal happiness.

But what if happiness becomes impossible to attain? What if a dread disease, or some other calamity, drains all joy from life, leaving only misery and suffering? The right to life includes and implies the right to commit suicide. To hold otherwise—to declare that society must give you permission to kill yourself—is to contradict the right to life at its root. If you have a duty to go on living, despite your better judgment, then your life does not belong to you, and you exist by permission, not by right.

For these reasons, each individual has the right to decide the hour of his death and to implement that solemn decision as best he can. The choice is his because the life is his. And if a doctor is willing to assist in the suicide, based on an objective assessment of his patient’s mental and physical state, and on objective evidence of his patient’s consent, the law should not stand in his way.

Were John Ashcroft to contract a terminal disease, he would have a legal right to regard his own belief in God as paramount, and to instruct his doctor to stand by and let him suffer, just as long as his body and mind could endure the agony, until the last bitter paroxysm carried him to the grave. But the attorney general has no right to force such mindless, medieval misery upon doctors and patients, in Oregon or elsewhere, who refuse to regard their precious lives as playthings of a cruel god.

In the end, only the Supreme Court can thwart the designs of conservatives who, by injecting religion into the bloodstream of American law, seek to assist in our own national suicide.

Thomas A. Bowden practices law in Baltimore, Maryland and is a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute, which promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Send respones to



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