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Assisted suicide is a moral right

by Thomas Bowden


Editor’s note: Thomas A. Bowden, an attorney and a writer for the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif., returns here to a question he explored last year, when the Federal Appeals Court in California rejected the federal government’s case on the basis of a technicality: deciding correct medical practice is a purview of the states. The U.S. Supreme Court will now take up the question not only of who gets to decide, but, hopefully, of whether an individual has the right to commit suicide.


Though John Ashcroft has left the Justice Department, his religious conservative legacy lives on in the form of a lawsuit designed to overturn Oregon’s physician-assisted suicide law. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case, which up till now has hinged upon legal technicalities instead of addressing the real issue: whether an individual has a right to commit suicide.

The Oregon law that is under attack permits doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs to a mentally competent, terminally ill patient who makes written and oral requests, consults two physicians, and endures a mandatory waiting period. The patient’s relatives and doctors are powerless to engage in legalized “mercy killing,” as they cannot make an application on the patient’s behalf, and the patient himself administers the lethal dose.

Back in 2001, Ashcroft decreed that any doctor prescribing such a dose would violate federal law against dispensing controlled dangerous substances without a “legitimate medical purpose.” So far, Ashcroft’s position has been rejected by the federal courts, and now the Bush administration’s last chance lies with the Supreme Court.

This case will allow the Court to revisit its 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. The Glucksberg case looks increasingly vulnerable to being overruled, especially in light of the Court’s 2003 decision upholding the right of individuals to engage in private homosexual acts, regardless of whether society or God may abhor homosexuality.

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 the Bush administration into attacking those who dare to defy God’s divine plan.

Conservatives’ outrage at the Oregon law stems from the 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 use secular laws to enforce their faith in God, 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 or God 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, the law should not stand in his way.

If George W. Bush were to contract a terminal disease, he would have a legal right to regard his own faith in God’s will 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 Bush administration has no right to force such mindless, medieval misery upon doctors and patients 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.


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