Killing Isnít Medicine
By Wesley J. Smith
Last month, to the cheers of editorial writers throughout the country, a
federal judge enjoined Attorney General John Ashcroft from revoking the
federal licenses to prescribe controlled substances of Oregon doctors who
legally assist in a patient's suicide. The Oregon lawsuit was filed last
year when Ashcroft issued a directive in the Federal Register, proclaiming
that assisted suicide was not a "legitimate medical purpose" under
the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). But United States District Court Judge
Robert E. Jones ruled that once Oregon determined that assisted suicide was
a legitimate medical act, the federal government was bound to accede to the
state's determination even when enforcing federal law.
This week, the European Court of Human Rights issued a ruling in another
assisted-suicide case, the facts of which seem to have great bearing on
whether assisted suicide is or is not a medical act. The case involved a
terminally ill woman disabled by Lou Gehrig's disease (known as motor-neuron
disease in Europe) named Diane Pretty. Mrs. Pretty wants to commit suicide.
But her disease has progressed to the point where she cannot do the deed on
her own. So last year, she filed suit in Britain seeking a court order
guaranteeing that her husband would suffer no legal penalty for helping her
kill herself, even though Britain's law prohibits assisted suicide.
Pretty's case is acutely relevant to Ashcroft's attempt to declare assisted
suicide non-medical under the CSA. Consider the relief Mrs. Pretty requested
from the British and EU courts: She wanted her husband Brian to help kill
her legally. Not her doctor; her husband who, relevantly, is not a physician
and has no medical training other than that he may have picked up as a
caregiver for his wife.
Pretty's lawsuit has been treated with great respect in the British and
European courts. The trial court first gave its permission to bring the case
and then spent a great deal of time hearing evidence and pondering the law
before ultimately rejecting the claim. The House of Lords, the British
equivalent of the Supreme Court, took the appeal and held a hearing that
treated her arguments with utmost solemnity and seriousness. Then, when the
Lords ruled against Mrs. Pretty, the EU Court agreed quickly to take up the
matter to see if Britain's anti-assisted-suicide law violated the European
Now imagine what would have happened if this case had not been about
assisted suicide but about Mrs. Pretty wanting her husband to be allowed to
perform surgery on her, such as the minor procedure required to insert her
feeding tube into her abdomen. Or, what if she had brought the case
requesting that her husband be allowed to decide the proper medication for
her to take to alleviate the symptoms of her disease. She would have been
laughed out of court! Why? Because those are actions that are clearly
medical: Only licensed medical professionals can perform surgery or
prescribe medications. Thus, the case would be deemed utterly frivolous and
a waste of the court's time.
Notice also that Mrs. Pretty did not sue to prevent her husband from being
prosecuted for practicing medicine without a license if he assisted her
suicide. The very idea of such a suit is so ludicrous that it would have
never occurred to her attorneys. Assisting a suicide, after all, isn't
Further proof of this is found in the advocacy of the euthanasia movement,
which has established a cottage industry in suicide devices. For example,
Derek Humphry, cofounder of the Hemlock Society has established NuTech,
which is devoted to promoting suicide-facilitation devices. As reported
breathlessly Economist in the December 6, 2001, among these contraptions is
the "DeBreather," a face-mask apparatus that recycles a suicidal
person's own carbon dioxide toward the end of cutting off all oxygen.
How-to-commit-suicide videos Humphry promotes (and stars in), also extol the
use helium and a plastic bag to bring life to an end.
Now ask yourself this question: Should Medicare pay for the expense of
obtaining and using a DeBreather if the patient is over 65? Or should your
local HMO provide the device to patients as if it were durable medical
equipment akin to an oxygen tank or a kidney-dialysis machine? Indeed,
should helium be considered a palliative medical agent? The entire concept
is preposterous, ridiculous. Why? Simply stated, killing isn't
A few years ago, Berkeley Assemblywoman Dion Aroner authored legislation to
legalize physician-assisted suicide in California. At a public forum I
confronted her and made the points I have just written above. Aroner nodded
her head and acknowledged candidly that she would have preferred to keep
doctors out of it. But, she said, she believed it necessary to bring
assisted suicide under a medical umbrella for political reasons. Otherwise,
her bill would have no chance of passage.
Assisted-suicide activists intentionally redefine, distort, and subvert
medicine, medical ethics, and the morality of health-care public policy in
pursuit of their dream of obtaining the right to "choose the time and
manner" of their own deaths. But at least they have an excuse: They are
death fundamentalists driven by a cancerous ideology that is as deeply felt
as the most sincere expression of religious faith. But when a federal judge
thwarts the United States attorney general from recognizing the obvious
truth that intentional killing is not medical by forcing him to accept
Oregon's twisted redefinition, not only has medicine been subverted ó but
also has language and the law.
ó Wesley J. Smith is an attorney for the International Task Force on
Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide.
He is the author of Culture of Death: The
Assault on Medical Ethics in America and co-author of Power
Over Pain: How To Get the Pain Control You Need.