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
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
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,
to instruct his doctor to stand by and let him suffer, just
as long as his body and mind could endure the agony, until
bitter paroxysm carried him to the grave. But the attorney
general has no right to force such mindless, medieval misery
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,
the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and
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