Assisted Suicide Ban May be Legal, But Isn't Necessarily Right

9 November 2001

By Stentor Danielson

Attorney General John Ashcroft has begun to take action against doctors who take advantage of an Oregon assisted suicide law. This follows up on last week’s crackdown on medical marijuana use, which was legalized in California but remained prohibited by federal law. While these two issues share many similarities, raising questions about federal drug laws and the rights of the chronically ill, I will restrict amy attention here to assisted suicide.

The Oregon law, the only one of its kind in the United States, allows doctors to prescribe, but not administer, a lethal dose of a drug. Such a prescription requires the agreement of at least two doctors that the patient’s condition is chronic and the patient is capable of making such a grave choice. The prescriptions usually issued are for barbiturates that are controlled under federal law.

Ashcroft has reversed former Attorney General Janet Reno’s decision allowing the Oregon law to stand, saying that assisted suicide is not a "legitimate medical purpose" allowed under federal drug law. The crackdown was hailed by right-to-life advocates, who maintain that assisted suicide violates the sanctity of life. In other quarters, the action has brought back concerns about Ashcroft’s extreme conservatism that nearly scuttled his appointment earlier this year.

Legally, Ashcroft has the upper hand. It is a basic fact of our government that federal law supersedes state law. As a member of the executive, rather than legislative, branch, Ashcroft can perhaps be excused for simply carrying out the duty of the office in enforcing the laws that are on the books. However, his reinterpretation of the relevant federal regulations puts him in the position of opposing a practice that ought to be allowed.

I oppose suicide in the strongest terms. With all the unwanted death in this world, I am greatly distressed that anyone would choose death. However, life is a choice, not a duty. The joys of life are not an entitlement for anyone with a heartbeat, they are to be chosen and actively grasped. Forced life is meaningless. So while I have difficulty imagining pain great enough to motivate a person to choose death, I recognize that to make the choice to live meaningfully there must be a viable alternative choice. The lives of those who persevere mean that much more because they could have chosen another way out.

Those who argue that the sanctity of life is so great that we cannot allow it to be taken under any circumstances miss the reason we consider life sacred. We consider life sacred as a reminder that it is something none of us may take from another person. However, assisted suicide is not murder. A person’s life is his or her own.

It can be argued that chronically ill patients don’t need a doctor’s help to end their lives if they so choose. There are two flaws here. First, it contradicts the purpose of banning a practice, and takes the teeth out of arguments against it, to tell opponents of the ban that the practice should be able to go on despite the law.

More important is the reason assisted suicide candidates seek out professional help. They want to die with dignity. There is a huge difference between slitting one’s wrists over a bathroom sink or trying to overdose on over-the-counter medication on the one hand, and slipping quietly off into oblivion or the afterlife in a controlled setting on the other. Death in a medical setting also eases the burden on the survivors, as the institutional structure for handling the body will be ready and in place.

We must be clear on the type of suicide that is being considered here. Assisted suicide law and practice are carefully arranged to be certain that the decision to die is thoroughly considered and rationally chosen. Patients requesting assisted suicide are not representative of all suicides. The argument I am making is not applicable to the majority of suicide attempts because the choice to kill oneself is not generally made with a clear rationality. Suicidal people are generally suffering from mental illness or extreme emotional trauma that clouds their judgment, which may explain why, if prevented from ending their lives, so few of these people try a second time.

However, the lengthy consultation process necessary to acquire an assisted suicide is meant to head off patients that are not mentally capable of making the choice not to live and those using a suicide attempt as a cry for help. Patients who make it through the screening process have carefully considered the options and still finds life to be a poor choice.

Federal oversight is perhaps even warranted here to insure that the patient has tried the most sophisticated pain relief and cures available -- in order to present the strongest argument against suicide. Allowing assisted suicide is integral to making certain that patients who do kill themselves are making a rational choice to do so. Legal, accessible and sophisticated assisted suicide programs would help to steer patients in the direction of thorough counseling, rather than pushing them to dangerous and ill-considered do-it-yourself projects or trapping them in an unwanted life.

Ashcroft needs to reconsider the value of forcing people to choose life. And if he still finds himself bound by the law, he needs to recommend that the law be changed to allow states to legalize assisted suicide.

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