Wednesday, May 26, 2004

A Victory for State’s Rights, But Not for Human Dignity

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today that Oregon doctors cannot be sanctioned or prosecuted as being criminally liable for prescribing overdoses, allowed by the state's voter-approved “Death with Dignity Act.” Oregon currently is the only state in the nation where physicians are legally permitted to prescribe lethal doses of medication to terminally ill patients. The law allows terminally ill patients with less than six months to live to request a lethal dose of drugs. Two doctors must confirm the diagnosis and determine that the patient is mentally competent to make the request. According to records kept by the state, at least 171 people have made, and subsequently acted upon, such a request since 1998, following the resolution of earlier legal challenges made to the law’s passage in 1994. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft had attempted to establish the ability of the federal government to pursue doctors prescribing medication for lethal purposes under the Controlled Substances Act.

The ruling of the Court, in a 2-1 decision, found that states historically have regulated and licensed the practice of medical doctors, and that Ashcroft exceeded his authority when he issued a directive attempting to use the Controlled Substances Act as a means to put a stop to the implementation of the “Death with Dignity Act.” Judge Richard Tallman wrote, "The attorney general's unilateral attempt to regulate general medical practices historically entrusted to state lawmakers interferes with the democratic debate about physician-assisted suicide."

The case decided today began in April, 2002, when a judge in Portland blocked the Justice Department from threatening to punish doctors. The Ninth Circuit Court, in a 1996 decision arising from a case in the State of Washington, ruled that assisted suicide was permitted because there is a constitutional right to die.

Does the Constitution of the United States establish a right to die? I could insert pages of quotations from this document, as well as the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,”) but I don’t really think anyone reading this will accept the argument that each of us has a constitutional right to die. As with the interesting decision in 1972 by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Roe v. Wade, finding a constitutional “right to privacy,” this so-called finding by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals of a right to die is absurd. And, as a supporter of the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution (“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”), I agree with the ruling that reserves the right to license and regulate the practice of medicine to the states.

But does a state have the ability to create, by law, a right to die? Do we, individually, have the right to die? Or, as our faith teaches us, is this right God’s, and God’s alone?

We do not have the power to create life. We do have the power to “procreate,” to “bring forth” life. In this way we are like God; but then we must acknowledge that this is a power granted to us by God, Who alone has the power to “bring forth from nothing” – that is, to create ex nihilo. Likewise, the power to mete out death is limited, beginning with “Thou shalt not murder.” Suicide, in a way being “self-murder,” is an act prohibited to us.

So, while the right of the state has been upheld, there is no reason to celebrate – because the end result of this ruling is the upholding of a law allowing a right to die, of which we cannot approve.