Human Exceptionalism

“The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia”

I have a book review of The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia posted on today’s First Things blog. The book is dry, but very good in its discussion of the legal issues, and not bad in explaining philosophical perspectives. I was disappointed, however, that the author Neil M. Gorsuch pretty much passed over the political side of the story and seemed to assume that the decision would be made by those in the ivory tower rather than in the public square. Here is how I concluded:

When Oregon voters passed Measure 16 (the Oregon Death with Dignity Act) in 1994 by a 51 to 49 percent vote, most informed observers on both sides of this contentious issue (including this writer) expected the assisted-suicide legalization agenda to sweep through much of the country. But it didn’t. And even though the reasons assisted-suicide advocates have not succeeded in moving assisted suicide beyond its Oregon beachhead are relevant to the future of the euthanasia movement, Gorsuch does not substantially explore what didn’t happen and why.

Had he done so, he would have uncovered one of the great political success stories of recent decades. When Measure 16 passed, the most vocal opponents of assisted suicide were pro-lifers in general and the Catholic Church in particular. As the vote in Oregon demonstrated, this political alliance was strong but not strong enough to hold back the tide. This dynamic changed dramatically in the mid-1990s, when disability-rights activists—who are overwhelmingly liberal in their politics, secular in their beliefs, and pro-choice about abortion–noticed that Jack Kevorkian was mostly assisting the suicides of depressed disabled people, to the applause of much of society. Convinced that disabled people were the primary targets of the euthanasia agenda, movement activists jumped into the fray like the cavalry riding to the rescue. Their vigorous and often angry advocacy changed the political paradigm profoundly, a blow from which euthanasia advocates have not yet recovered.

Today a diverse, if loose, coalition of politically strange bedfellows–disability-rights activists, civil-rights organizers, advocates for the poor, medical-professional organizations, the Catholic Church, and the pro-life movemen–stands as an effective bulwark against the spread of assisted-suicide legalization. Illustrating how successful this coalition has been, it defeated voter referenda to legalize assisted suicide in Michigan in 1998 and Maine in 2000. Last year, in a high-profile victory, assisted-suicide legislation in California died unexpectedly in a State Senate subcommittee. Serious efforts to legalize assisted suicide have also been turned back repeatedly in Vermont and (barely) in Hawaii.

But the euthanasia movement is strong, too. Its organizations are well financed, and its leaders and grassroots proponents are determined. Thus the only sure thing about the future of assisted suicide is that there will be political trench warfare over the issue for years to come. A thorough analysis of the “future” of assisted suicide in America will bring the same depth of research and analysis to the political dimension of the issue that Gorsuch so capably brought to his description of the trends in law and philosophy.

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