Assisted Suicide and the Supreme Court
After the nation's highest court declared that U.S. citizens are not constitutionally guaranteed the right to a physician-assisted suicide, the movement has sort of lost its steam. Why do the Supreme Court Justices consider legalization dangerous? How did it win legislative approval in Oregon in the first place? What is the current trend in public opinion about this question? This essay will delve into these questions.
After the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a crushing blow to the assisted suicide movement, time stopped for the activists. In a unanimous decision, the nine justices upheld the right of each and every state to protect its residents. Justice Rehnquist, writing for the Court, clearly articulated the dangers that legalized assisted suicide would pose, particularly to those who are most vulnerable: "The risk of harm is greatest for the many individuals in our society whose autonomy and well-being are already compromised by poverty, lack of access to good medical care, advanced age, or membership in a stigmatized social group."(1)
With the Court's decision, the door was slammed in the faces of those who sought to prevent full public discussion of what permissive assisted suicide would mean to all of us. Contrary to what some have said, the decision did not open any doors. Instead it recognized that the debate belongs at the state level where the realities can be fully and honestly addressed. Now, with their resounding defeat from the Supreme Court, assisted suicide advocates are forced to take their case before the court of public opinion where they are losing support.
During the last year, national support for euthanasia has fallen 18 percentage points. In l996, 75 percent of Americans said they favored permitting a doctor to end a patient's life. (2) Now, that support has fallen to 57 percent. (3) This change reflects the fact that, as people learn more about assisted suicide, their opposition to it grows. In a very short time, each and every state will be deeply embroiled in assisted suicide advocates' attempts to transform the procedure of assisted suicide into a medical treatment. Yet this is an opportunity for all of us who wish to care for, not "take care of" vulnerable people to provide accurate, complete information that is so vital to the final outcome of this debate. The current situation in Oregon provides a lesson in the need for true and complete information.
Over the next few months, the spotlight will be on Oregon where a law permitting assisted suicide (Measure 16 (4) ) that passed in l994, is being played out. In April 1997, the Oregon Medical Association's House of Delegates -- which had previously remained neutral on Measure 16 -- voted 121-1 to condemn implementation of Measure 16. (5) And a poll taken in May 1997 showed that 61 percent of voters favored a new vote on Measure 16. (6)
What happened in Oregon? How did such a poorly conceived and...