Hock the vote

This week the U.S. Supreme Court is considering Gonzales v. Oregon, a challenge to our state’s unique Death with Dignity Act. Despite the fact that a majority of Oregon voters have supported the law in two elections, the Bush Administration believes that judicial activism is needed to overturn the will of the people.


The federal argument centers on the Controlled Substances Act. This law gives the federal government the right to regulate controlled substances in order to handle drug trafficking and distribution. Licensed physicians, however, do not traffic or distribute drugs; they prescribe them, while pharmacies distribute them.


If the Bush administration gets its way, Oregon doctors stand to lose their licenses for prescribing lethal doses in accordance with the strict guidelines of Oregon’s law. The federal government says it should be able to step in because of its jurisdiction under the Controlled Substances Act.


Solicitor General Paul Clement said, "The most natural reading of the (federal) Controlled Substances Act is … this falls within the authority of the attorney general."


It takes a mighty natural and unconsidered reading of the law to come to this conclusion. The drugs that are used to help people end their lives, such as Secobarbital, have other clinical uses in minor doses. The government does not wish to regulate doctors who prescribe barbiturates like Secobarbital for insomnia; they only wish to regulate the drug when it’s being prescribed for a specific purpose: doctor-assisted suicide.


Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, in one of her final parings of argument for which she has been so famous, asked the Solicitor General during arguments if this meant that the Controlled Substances Act also prevented doctors from participating in executions of people on death row by lethal injection. Clement received the brunt of the grilling, because this court (even without Rehnquist) has habitually leaned in the direction of states’ rights.


This is the larger issue at hand: does an individual, sovereign state have the authority to pass a law that contravenes the wishes of the current ruling party in Washington?


Constitutionally, it would seem that states do have these rights, and voter-approved laws reflecting the will of the people should be allowed to stand. The basic framework of state sovereignty is being challenged.


The root cause of this particular case reflects something much more disturbing. The attorney general could have challenged any number of state laws to erode state sovereignty, such as California’s smog law, or Massachusetts’ allowance of gay marriages. But doctor-assisted suicide is of great importance to religious zealots who believe everyone has a “right to life.”


As we saw in the sad case of Terry Schiavo this past summer, these “right-to-life” people are more interested in an “obligation to life.” In order to further their political agenda, they would prefer that people live on in continuous pain as long as humanly possible.


As medical technologies advance, and new ways are found to sustain this hunk of flesh that carries our souls around, how much is too much? If we contract terminal cancer, but someone invents a machine that can keep our body breathing for five hundred years, must we choose to continue living in such a decrepit fashion?


Imagine losing all ability to speak or move freely because of a stroke at the age of 96. Your descendents, in an effort to preserve your life, strap you onto a gurney from which you can never rise, and a machine breathes for you and feeds you. This machine keeps you alive for centuries, trapping your soul in a shell from which it cannot escape.


We are approaching the point in our grasp of technology and biology where this idea is not so farfetched. Before we reach that point, we should consider how long we want to be kept alive, if we are not able to live our lives.


It is not a humane way to treat a fellow human, by keeping them alive indefinitely, and it is bereft of spiritual kindness to suggest that we have an obligation to live in bodies that we no longer wish to inhabit. People who are living in continual pain deserve the opportunity to start over again, to meet their maker, and to end their lives with grace.


Those who would deny them that opportunity because of their own fear of death are nothing less than evil.