Most of us here in Oregon were thrilled when the Supreme Court upheld our state’s assisted suicide law. Tuesday’s decision was a victory both for state’s rights and common sense.
Twice, Oregon voters have affirmed their belief that terminally ill people with six months or less to live have the right to end their life if they come to feel that it isn’t worth living. I can’t understand how anybody could argue with this.
Who else should be in control of the life of an adult who is capable of making his or her own decisions but that person? No answer comes to mind. People should be left free to live, and people should be left free to die—if that is their choice. Government shouldn’t butt into moral choices that affect no one but the individual making the choice.
Justices Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas disagreed, however. Scalia wrote what a Portland Oregonian editorial called a “peevish dissent.” Wanting to cast my eyes directly upon its peevishness, for the first time in my life I ventured into the legalistic wilds of the Supreme Court web site, where I found both the opinion and the dissents.
Boring. Reading further, still boring. It wasn’t until I got to the very end of Scalia’s dissent, pages 24-25, that I could sense peevishness under all the legalese. Scalia admits that assisted suicide falls within “the realm of public morality” which is traditionally addressed by the states.
Yet somehow he reaches the tortured conclusion that the Attorney General of the United States is better able to decide what is moral for the people of Oregon than the people themselves. Scalia supposedly has a great legal mind, but he is reduced to leaning on his utterly personal opinion when he writes:
If the term “legitimate medical purpose” has any meaning, it surely excludes the prescription of drugs to produce death.
Surely not, Mr. Scalia. Have you read the New England Journal of Medicine article, “Physician-Assisted Suicide—Oregon and Beyond”? Probably not. If you had, I don’t see how you could claim that aiding terminally ill people to make their own carefully-chosen end of life decision isn’t a legitimate medical purpose. Susan Okie, M.D. says:
Oregon’s seven years of experience with this law have been, for the most part, reassuring: medical and legal safeguards established during implementation appear to have prevented abuse, and most patients have had the expected outcome…The law has not had the dire social consequences that some opponents predicted. There is no evidence that it has been used to coerce elderly, poor, or depressed patients to end their lives, nor has it caused any significant migration of terminally ill people to Oregon.
Compassion in Dying of Oregon deserves a lot of credit for helping make Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act such a success. Back in my health planning/policy days I was deeply involved with bioethics issues in this state. It warms my heart to see that Oregon is still leading the fight to keep end-of-life decisions in the hands of the person whose life is ending—not the government.
What worries me, though, is that the religious right will continue to try to push their brand of Christian fundamentalism onto to everybody. This happened in the Terri Schiavo case, it is happening in the debates over abortion and the teaching of intelligent design, and I have little doubt that it will happen in the halls of Congress as attempts are made to overturn Oregon’s assisted suicide law legislatively.
Betty Rollin, author of a LA Times opinion piece, “In the end, peace of mind,” says:
An April Harris Poll showed 70% of respondents answered "yes" when asked if terminally ill people should be allowed to die with a physician's help. If Oregon loses the battle to preserve its law, the comfort Oregonians now have will be lost to them — and most likely to all of us.The title of a USA Today story about Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act sums it up: “The dying, not the feds, deserve final say on life.”
That surely sounds moral to me, Mr. Scalia.