The Assisted Suicide Debate


Oct 13, USA (SUN) — Recently, visitors to the Supreme Court had an opportunity to see the newly appointed Chief Justice Roberts in action. The arguments being heard turned on Oregon’s assisted suicide law. The law was established in 1997 by a 60% margin. The federal government has sought to intervene on the grounds that the Controlled Substances Act gives the Federal Government exclusive jurisdiction to regulate what the assisted suicide law permits.

This was the first opportunity for Roberts to raise his voice as Chief Justice. He asked the U.S. solicitor general, who was arguing to invalidate the Oregon law, for one example of the Attorney General’s office overriding a medical practice authorized by a state legislature. The solicitor general replied with an example involving the Food and Drug Administration. “That’s the FDA” Roberts retorted.

Roberts was attempting to discover a precedent that would support the possibility of federal intervention in the Oregon case. The Controlled Substances Act gives the federal government authority to govern traffic in certain substances, overriding state authority. Outgoing Justice Sandra Day O’Connor quipped whether the Controlled Substances Act could be used to prevent lethal injections in capital punishment, or whether states would be allowed to authorize the use of steroids for body-building.

While this may have been entertaining for the justices, the subject at hand was assisted suicide and the questions it raises. For example, is it permissible to stand by while suicides are expedited by members of the medical profession? If the practice is hypothetically legal, can individual states authorize it?

The law is no longer a hot political topic in Oregon. With popular sentiment heavily in its favor, skeptics have tended to drop the issue. The practice exists, but it is rarely implemented. The fear that the law would create a stampede of those seeking to avail themselves of the remedy proved unfounded.

The practice has been legal in the Netherlands for over 20 years although critics point to evidence of its abuse. Questions naturally arise. Did the patient really want to die? Did he wish to die because of unawareness of other palliative measures? Did he have access to information on hospice care which might have affected the desire to call for the death doctor? Critics complain that only 50 per cent of assisted suicides record a doctor’s explanation of what exactly was done, what counseling had been provided, and what alternatives were explored.

The overriding fear is that the sheer convenience of accelerating death will negatively impact medical counsel and medical action. A lethal dose of the correct medication will cost about $35.00. This is in stark contrast to the enormous cost of institutional care. Further, if the Supreme Court rules that the federal government does not have the authority under existing law to interfere with the judgment of the voters of individual states will other states follow suit? California is closely watching the deliberations of the Court.

What is conspicuous by its absence from the legal contentions is moral authority for the proposition. Most religious faiths prohibit intervention designed to cause or even hasten death. Most “early” deaths, observers contend, are brought about by refusal of treatment. Fasting until death is generally frowned upon. Declining chemotherapy is not. To seek professional assistance in accelerating the death process is what the Oregon voters have sought to permit. The Supreme Court will make its decision known early next year. One questions whether the will of the Almighty will be considered.


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