During the eight years
Dr. Jack Kevorkian languished in a Michigan prison, how many
state legislatures reformed their laws against physician-assisted
Oregon remains the only state to have provided clear procedures
by which doctors can end their dying patients’ pain and
suffering while protecting themselves from criminal prosecution.
For 10 years now, Oregon doctors have been permitted 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 free
choice is paramount throughout this process. Neither relatives
nor doctors can apply on the patient’s behalf, and the
patient himself administers the lethal dose.
Elsewhere in America, the political influence of religious conservatism
has thwarted passage of similar legislation, leaving terminal
patients to select from a macabre menu of painful, and often
violent end-of-life techniques universally regarded as too inhumane
for use on sick dogs or mass murderers.
Consider Percy Bridgman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who,
at 79, was entering the final stages of terminal cancer. Wracked
with pain and bereft of hope, he got a gun and somehow found
courage to pull the trigger, knowing he was condemning others
to the agony of discovering his bloody remains. His final note
said simply: “It is not decent for society to make a man
do this to himself. Probably this is the last day I will be able
to do it myself.”
What lawmakers must grasp 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 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 (not forced) to assist in the suicide, based on an
objective assessment of his patient’s mental and physical
state, the law should not prevent it.
Religious conservatives’ opposition to the Oregon approach
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.
If a religious conservative contracts a terminal disease, he
has 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 can endure the agony, until the
last bitter paroxysm carries him to the grave. But conservatives
have 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.
Secular and rational state legislators should regard the occasion
of Dr. Kevorkian’s release from jail as a stinging reminder
that 49 of the 50 states have failed to take meaningful steps
toward recognizing and protecting an individual’s unconditional
right to commit suicide.
Thomas A. Bowden is a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute