Killing Isn't Medicine
Assisted-suicide contortions

Wesley J. Smith
Reproduced with Permission

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 Rights Convention.

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 medicine.

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 medicine.

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 — but also has language and the law.

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.