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Friday, January 11, 2002

De-Politicizing the Final Choice

by The Independent Institute

Click to Send CardOne of the most dramatic battles between federal and state governments -- and a painful illustration of how drug prohibition cripples human dignity -- is brewing in Oregon, where a federal judge recently issued a court order to block U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft from interfering with the state's physician-assisted suicide law.

(Declaring that physician-assisted suicide "was not a legitimate medical purpose for prescribing drugs," Ashcroft -- who earier had promised to uphold federalism over federal encroachment upon the states -- had threatened to have the medical licenses of participating doctors revoked.)

Many civil libertarians, understandably, see Ashcroft's threat as a direct assault on human dignity in a matter too private and sensitive to allow government interference between doctor and patient.

However, according to psychiatrist Thomas Szasz (member, Independent Institute Board of Advisors), the fundamental problem is that our laws make it unlawful to use lethal drugs to commit suicide -- except, as in the case of Oregon, when it is physician-assisted, and even then only under limited circumstances.

In other words, no matter how painfully one may suffer from a terminal illness, one's ultimate choice must be prescribed by a physician.

Undoubtedly, this needlessly prolongs the suffering and anguish of those law-abiding sufferers who decide that waiting for nature to take its course is too long and too painful.

Drug and suicide law reform, however, would help restore genuine dignity to those suffering from unspeakable pain. "Physician-assisted suicide," writes Szasz in a new op-ed, "is but one of the consequences of our drug laws."

By expanding their range of lawful options, drug and suicide law reform would enable the terminally ill to take matters lawfully into their own hands without interference from the state. It would also help lift the burden from physicians struggling to interpret the Hippocratic Oath.

"The American people are ceaselessly propagandized about the real dangers from which drug prohibitions are intended to protect us," Szasz concludes. "The damage the prohibitions cause are glossed over in silence or, more often, are unrecognized. We avoid confronting problems of living as moral problems and choose instead to treat them as medical problems. It is not a good choice."

Carl P. Close is Academic Affairs Director for The Independent Institute and Assistant Editor of The Independent Review. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Consumer Finance Law Report, and other publications. He is also Editor of The Lighthouse, a weekly e-mail newsletter of The Independent Institute.

This piece originally appeared in the November 26, 2001 issue of The Lighthouse. Republished with permission.


Assisted Suicide Is Bootleg Suicide," by Thomas Szasz (LOS ANGELES TIMES, 11/23/01).

"Beware of Pharmacracy," by Thomas Szasz (UPI, 8/21/01).

"The Therapeutic State: The Tyranny of Pharmacracy," by Thomas Szasz (THE INDEPENDENT REVIEW, Spring, 2001).

"Arguments for Federalism," by Alex Tabarrok, research director of The Independent Institute.


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De-Politicizing the Final Choice


Richard Holmes knows he doesn't need a doctor's prescription for a powerful sedative to end his life. He could turn on his car's ignition and sit in his closed garage. Or he could swallow a bottle of the liquid morphine he takes to ease the pain from the cancer that has spread to his liver.
But a solitary and perhaps violent suicide is not the kind of death Holmes wants. Nor does he wish to spend his last days in a painkiller-induced fog, unable to talk with his children and grandchildren.
'I Should Die the Way I Want To' Ore. Doctors, Patients Defend Threatened Assisted Suicide Law, By Susan Okie, Washington Post Staff Writer, Tuesday, January 1, 2002

Well, drug use, in my view, is a crime. It's a violation of the law. Simple drug possession is a violation of the law. At the same time, I think it is appropriate that we look at options for nonviolent drug users such as drug courts that have intensive drug testing. There's accountability there, long-term rehabilitation. They have a better chance of success of changing their direction in life.
Asa Hutchinson, the newly-appointed head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Newshour with Jim Lehrer, PBS, August 27, 2001

I don't see any obstacle in the Oregon law or our view of that (law) that might impact on the appropriate use of pain medication to relieve pain
Asa Hutchinson, the newly-appointed head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, October 25, 2001, Death With Dignity National Center

If God leaves us free to make decisions, who would I be to supersede God and start imposing what he allows us to be free to decide?
Attorney General John Ashcroft, Larry King Live, CNN, February 7, 2001

John Ashcroft is a born-again, Bible believing Christian and former evangelist. He and his wife, Janet, attend National Community Church, which was originally organized by the Schencks. Faith and Action commends the Attorney General, the Bush Administration and the Justice Department for taking definitive action to safeguard elderly, hopelessly sick, lonely and sad persons, created in Godís image and objects of His love, from crusading euthanasia advocates by reversing a Clinton Administration order approving of the practice.
Faith and Action, P&R Schenck Associates in Evangelism, Inc. © 2001


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