The Oregon law permits a
doctor 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 apply on the patient’s behalf, and the
patient himself administers the lethal dose.
In 2001 then Attorney General John Ashcroft decreed that any
doctor prescribing such a dose would violate federal law against
dispensing controlled dangerous substances without a “legitimate
medical purpose.” Consequently, the case reached the Supreme
Court as a technical debate between federal and state governments
over which one should regulate the practice of medicine.
Recently the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state of Oregon
could permit assisted suicide, despite the federal law. But who
was missing from that debate? The individual patients whose lives
were at stake.What the Supreme Court should have done was bypass
legal technicalities and 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.
What the courts must grasp, if they are ever to resolve the battle
over assisted suicide once and for all, is that there is no rational,
secular basis upon which the government can properly prevent
any individual from choosing to end his own life. When religious
conservatives use secular laws to enforce their idea of God’s
will, they threaten the central principle on which America was
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, the law should
not stand in his way.
Religious conservatives’ outrage at the Oregon law stems
from the belief that human life is a gift from God, 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.
If George W. Bush were to contract a terminal disease, he would
have a legal right to regard his own 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.
Conservatives crave to inject religion into the bloodstream of
American law, thereby assisting in our own national suicide.
However, they cannot succeed without the Supreme Court’s
consent. Sooner or later, the Court must confront the main issue,
and decide whether an individual’s right to life includes
the right to commit suicide.
Thomas A. Bowden, an attorney, is a writer for Ayn Rand
Institute in Irvine, Calif. The Institute promotes the ideas
of Ayn Rand—best-selling
author of Atlas Shrugged and The
Fountainhead and originator of the philosophy she called “Objectivism.”