Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Oregon Suicide Law

In case you missed it, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld* Oregon's execrable suicide law today, by a vote of 6 to 3. In his first high-profile decision, Chief Justice Roberts voted with Scalia and Thomas to support the U.S. Attorney General's interpretation of federal law, allowing him to prevent the use of prescription drugs in assisting suicide.

(Correction: the Supreme Court did not "uphold" the law. The law itself was not at issue, but rather, at issue was an administrative action by U.S. government, that would have prevented doctors from using federally regulated drugs in assisting suicides.)

Here again, I confess to mixed feelings. On the one hand, there is the obvious immorality--and worse, corruption--of physicians assisting people in killing themselves, and creating a bureaucratic system to enable this.

On the other hand, I don't want the U.S. government regulating everything, not even everything that ought to be regulated; I do believe in the authority, and legitimate autonomy, of the several states.

I am not sanguine about federal drug laws, and their enforcement. There are disturbing accounts of doctors holding back from giving patients sufficient pain medication, because they fear the feds coming down on them. If true, this is a serious matter, not only because it means people being denied pain medication they should have if they need it, but also, this problem of patient pain is one of the very arguments made for euthanasia!

To cite a related, but less weighty issue: the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. I have no idea whether it's true that marijuana can help someone who is sick; I have to say, if the patient says he feels better, then it works! (Isn't that how most cold "treatments" work?) I can see very little justification for denying a dying person a joint if it really helps; yet the Supreme Court upheld the federal government on that one.

I suppose the argument can be made that the people have recourse to elections, to seek change in such federal laws; however, when does the Supreme Court protect minorities from the wrong-headedness, or simply indifference, of electoral majorities?

Also, it does matter what the federal law in question actually said, doesn't it? As much as I want to stop that abominable business in Oregon, it may be that the majority of the court is right, that the existing federal law couldn't justify what then-AG Ashcroft did.


Mark Anthony said...

I share your mixed feelings on this issue. From the point of view of jurisprudence, the federal government ought not to be claiming the right to alter state law with which it disagrees, unless there is a real federal matter at stake. Medical practice, even warped as it is in Oregon, is a state matter. So too, by the way, is marriage - gay or not.

This issue points out the limitation of law. Assisted suicide (which we should NEVER call euthanasia - "good death" indeed!), abortion, marriage rights, pornography, etc. will end only when the change of heart occurs in people. Overregualtion often builds more resistence than obedience. Sometimes the law needs to follow practice instead of leading it.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our laws, but in ourselves."

Mike L said...

Hi Father,

I think this whole issure is much more complex than a lot of people think, and I think you did a pretty good job of looking at the issue.

We live in a country with a great problem, we have people of many different beliefs and moralities, and I think the purpose of the government is to pass laws that maximise the freedom of choice while minimizing the effect on others. This is not easy to do.

I haven't looked closely at the law in question, but so long as it does not *reqire* a person to suicide, or a doctor to prescribe the midicines, then I really don't have much concern over it. As a Catholic it will not have an effect on me, except that I will have to work on better educating my kids.

I have no problem with people drinking alcohol or taking drugs, that is their choice. If they drive while under the influence, that effects others, and I have no trouble locking them up and throwing away the key.

Laws forcing pharmacists to dispense all legal medicines, requiring doctors to prescibe such medicines, or to perform all surguries is a much more difficlut problem. Yet I would hate to be in an automobile accident and find that the doctor at the emergency room does not do blood transfusions because he thinks they are immoral. And a soldier or policeman does not always have the choice of killing or not, or even who he kills. So maybe one should not become a soldier if he does not believe in killing, maybe pharmacists and doctors need to think along the same lines.

If we begin imposing our moral views on others using the law, then I believe it will not be long before others impose their views on me. And I have no desire to find that the law requires me to face east five times a day and kneel. But I believe that may well happen if we ignore freedom in favor of imposing morality.

God's greatest gift to us is our ability to choose. God's greatest curse seems to be the ability to choose. But isn't that always the case, what is powerful enough to do good, is powerful enough to do equivalent evil.

Mike L

Father Martin Fox said...


Thank you for your kind words, but I fear you may misunderstand my basic stance. The idea that we don't "impose morality" via law is nonsensical; that's essential to what law is about; all law is grounded in some moral vision -- the question is what vision, whose vision.

Hence, we have gone from law based in a moral matrix that saw contraception as something illicit, to forcing businesses and individuals to dispense it, against their conscience, and forcing religious organizations to fund it for its employees.

That said, that doesn't mean I favor laws enforcing each and every aspect of Judaeo-Christian morality, for a variety of reasons.

As to the Oregon case, it is fundamentally about the feds' interpetation and application of an existing law that hasn't itself been challenged on constitutional grounds. Reading portions of the majority and minority opinions, it seems the dissenters have a better argument about whether Ashcroft was acting legitimately, under that law, and what it allowed him to do.

I remain ambivalent, because I don't like "the Drug war." Yet I can't really summon up too much outrage against the general idea that regulating narcotics is a federal, vs. state, power. Yet I agree, medical practice, generally, is a state function . . .

Father Martin Fox said...


On the "gay marriage" thing...if it truly stayed a state matter, I'd be against any federal action.

The concern is that the Supreme Court would strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, and say that the full faith and credit section of the Constitution requires a legal marriage from one state to be recognized as such in all states.