Since 1994 Oregon physicians have been permitted by statute to help their patients commit suicide. The federal government’s challenge to that law will be argued on Wednesday before the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the court is likely to base its eventual decision on legal technicalities rather than on the real issue: an individual’s unconditional right to commit suicide.
The Oregon law that is under attack 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, 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 has reached the Supreme Court in the posture of a debate between federal and state governments over which one should regulate the practice of medicine.
Who is missing from this debate? The individual patient whose life is at stake.
What the Supreme Court should do is bypass legal technicalities and revisit its 1997 decision in Washington v. Glucksberg, which holds that individuals have no constitutionally protected right of suicide and, hence, no right to obtain assistance in that act. (The Glucksberg holding seems vulnerable to being overturned, especially in light of the Court’s 2003 decision upholding the right of individuals to engage in private homosexual acts, regardless of contrary religious or social opinion.)
What the courts must grasp, if they are to justly resolve the battle 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. 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 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.
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
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