We Americans have a habit of asking the wrong questions. Right now, the wrong question is whether the Constitution gives us a "right to die" and if so,, whether we are entitled to have our doctors’ assistance.
We Americans have a habit of asking the wrong questions.
Right now, the wrong question is whether the Constitution gives us a "right to die" and if so,, whether we are entitled to have our doctors’ assistance.
The Bill of Rights limits government power over individuals. It protects our right to believe what we wish, to read or view or download whatever we find interesting, to hold political opinions that differ from those of our neighbors. It protects our persons and properties from unwarranted government interference, The Bill of Rights erects a "zone of privacy" around each individual which government can breach only for very good cause. Whatever our differences on specific issues, most Americans really do believe that so long as we are not harming others, we should be entitled to enjoy the right that Justice Brandeis once called "the right most valued by civilized men- the right to be left alone."
When we are dealing with end-of-life decisions, poll after poll confirms that most of us want to make those decisions without the interference of the state. In Indiana,, the legislature has responded to public opinion by enacting Living Will legislation and by allowing us to designate medical surrogates–people who shall have the power to make decisions on our behalf. Our courts have generally refused to allow legislators or others to substitute their judgments for those of the people involved; is in that sense that the courts have found a "right" to die.
Assisted suicide is a different issue. Morally, it is murkier. Opponents point out that there is a difference between honoring a request not to intervene -not to use medical science to prolong the inevitable –and a request to act affirmatively to cause death. Proponents respond that in real life, the distinction is nowhere near so clear.
If a doctor ministers to a terminal AIDS patient with doses of painkiller sufficient to make that patient comfortable, and such amounts also hasten the death of the patient (as is frequently the case), has the doctor acted improperly? Most ethicists would say no –the intent was to comfort, so the hastening of death is not criminal. Indeed, in recent years, the medical profession has recognized the cruelty of under-medicating terminally ill persons because of misplaced concerns over addiction or overloading already weakened systems. Do we want police investigating the motives of every doctor who provides painkillers to a dying patient? If "assisted suicide" is a crime, how do we avoid such a result?
What about the doctor who provides lethal doses of medicine to a competent patient who has just received a fatal diagnosis? If the patient takes the drugs months later, is the doctor a criminal? If the patient flushes the drugs instead, is the doctor any less guilty? If a crafty patient gets less than lethal doses from two doctors and combines them, do we still prosecute?
These are not rhetorical questions. They raise difficult moral and ethical questions, and different people will answer them differently. That is why legislation is so unsatisfactory a response. The state certainly has a right–even a duty –to insure that vulnerable people are not intimidated into making decisions that are not truly their own. Competent individuals have a right to expect that directives about their own medical treatment will be honored. Doctors with terminal patients have a right to administer treatment without worrying that an ambitious prosecutor or grieving family member will initiate a criminal investigation.
Many of us would be reluctant to find a "right" to doctor-assisted suicide. But that really isn’t the question. The question is: if the patient is competent and the doctor willing, what gives govenment the "right" to interfere?