The Inalienable Right to Life: An Update on Assisted Suicide in the United States and Canada

Arthur Goldberg
December 7, 2017
Reproduced with Permission
Public Discourse

A bipartisan congressional resolution has been introduced by five Republicans and five Democrats to voice opposition to legalizing physician-assisted suicide, which has already become lawful in some states. These legislators seek to prevent euthanasia from gaining a greater foothold in the United States.

The congressional resolution recognizes that physician-assisted suicide devalues our fellow human beings. The resolution is also consistent with the Noahide Laws: seven laws proscribed by G-d to Noah after the Biblical flood, which are applicable to all of humanity. This code of conduct is the foundational premise for the three Abrahamic religions and formed the basis of American civilization as set forth in our founding documents. America's founding fathers specified that our society was premised on certain inalienable rights given by our Creator, and that those rights are beyond the power of a legislature or the courts to give or to take away.

One basic principle of these Noahide laws and the Ten Commandments subsequently given by G-d is "thou shall not kill." In the context of the debate over euthanasia, this means that no active intervention may be undertaken to terminate the life of a dying person or of a person not presently dying but suffering from an illness from which he or she may eventually die. Human life has been given to the human in trust and can only be taken away by G-d. Since G-d gives and takes away life, any form of suicide rejects G-d's sovereignty. Animated by the soul, human life is fashioned by G-d in His image. Protecting and respecting life requires that we follow the universal ethical values of the Abrahamic faiths and reject contemporary secularism's view that when suffering renders a person's life burdensome to oneself or to others, that life can and may be disposed of.

The History of Assisted Suicide in the United States

The question of legalizing or prohibiting assisted suicide in America has been percolating for more than twenty years. In 1997, the Supreme Court dealt with two federal court cases, Washington v. Glucksberg and Vacco v. Quill , in which it was asserted that assistance to commit suicide was a fundamental liberty interest protected by the Constitution. To the contrary, the Court determined that no such right exists in our nation's Constitution. The Court said that a patient may decide to discontinue life-sustaining treatment, but that the Constitution does not protect a right to death intentionally inflicted by the joint effort of doctor and patient. The Court recognized that in one case the cause of death is the underlying illness; in the other, it is human action. There is an important distinction between letting someone die and killing someone.

Starting in the early 1990s, several liberal jurisdictions such as Oregon, California, and Washington began initiatives to have physician-assisted suicide approved by the voters or by the legislatures. Conservatives fought back and both New York and Washington passed statutes that specifically prohibited assisted suicide. The federal constitutional challenge ensued.

In determining that there is no federal constitutional right to commit suicide with the help of a physician (whether considered under the due process clause or the equal protection clause), the Court left the decision whether to legalize or to ban such actions up to the individual states. In the same year that the Court decided the Glucksberg and Vacco cases, President Bill Clinton signed the Assisted Suicide Funding Restriction Act in order to prevent any federal funds from being used to promote or carry out assisted suicide. In 1999, a crusader for the right to commit suicide with the help of a physician, Dr. Jack Kervorkian, was convicted of second-degree murder in a Michigan courtroom for killing a terminally ill man. Recently, a group called "the Final Exit Network" was prosecuted in several assisted suicide cases, and its former medical director lost his medical license for participating in such acts. In other parts of the world, as religious observance and belief have receded, prohibitions banning euthanasia are reversed by civil governments.

Dangerous Developments in Canada

Earlier this year, in the case of A.B. v. Canada , Justice Paul Perell interpreted the Canadian legislative standard that one's natural death must be "reasonably foreseeable" in order to allow euthanasia to mean that the anticipated natural death need not be "imminent" nor that it even be "connected to a particular terminal disease or condition." This decision has already had a deadly impact.

In response to the ruling, Dr. Ellen Wiebe, a British Columbian physician who "has helped more than 80 Canadians end their suffering since the [Canadian aid-in-dying] law was adopted just over a year ago," reversed her previous practice of limiting her killings to those with a life expectancy of five years or less. (It should be noted that calculating life expectancy is at best an educated guess but can never be certain .) Dr. Wiebe announced her decision to kill Robyn Moro, a sixty-eight-year-old woman who suffered from Parkinson's disease. She based her decision on a calculation that the woman in the A.B. case suffered from severe osteoarthritis and could have lived, based on actuarial tables, a maximum of ten years. This calculation of ten-year life expectancy, based on Dr. Wiebe's reading of judicial precedent, became the new outside limit for Dr. Wiebe's killings.

As Rabbi Dr. Shimon Cowen and I pointed out in a previous Public Discourse essay, it's hard to imagine when death would not be reasonably foreseeable under the standard set forth in A.B. v. Canada. The absurdity of this kind of thinking (or more colloquially stated, "playing G-d") proves how hard it is to control the consequences of the reasoning in the A.B. decision. The truth is, we have no way of knowing how long a person may live.

Jeffrey Davitz's Story

Jeffrey Davitz's recent article in the Washington Post powerfully illustrates this. Davitz, a resident of California, was diagnosed in 2015 with a lethal and aggressive brain tumor. Davitz was told that without treatment he might survive for a few months. With treatment, he would probably last no more than six months, and in no event would he survive more than one year. His doctor assured him that he would provide the appropriate prescriptions to help him end his life.

In October 2015, Governor Jerry Brown signed a law allowing assisted suicide in the state of California. The California statute would not become effective until June 2016, a date beyond Davitz's predicted death. Nevertheless, Davitz worked with family members to seek death prior to his natural demise. As his strength diminished, he went into a hospice program. But G-d had other plans! While in hospice, he began regaining his balance and walking ability. His physical strength increased, and his brain cancer became dormant. Eventually, his condition improved so much that he was "kicked out" of the hospice program and returned to normal life.

Because of this experience, Davitz is now seriously conflicted about self-termination. Once he regained his health, he was able to celebrate his brother's sixtieth birthday, attend his daughter's graduation, and celebrate his parents' seventy-second wedding anniversary, all of which occurred after his medically projected death sentence. Davitz admits that he no longer has "clear simple feelings" about assisted suicide. "Instead, long beyond what was expected, I am simply living."

The Inalienable Right to Life

Although America's Declaration of Independence declared that Americans have an inalienable to right to life, a handful of American states are clearly ignoring that directive. Inalienable rights are by nature so essential to a person that they cannot be overridden by another or by a civil government.

America's founding fathers specified that these inalienable rights - endowed by our Creator - are beyond the reach of civil government. The American Revolution was based on a religious belief that crucial fundamental rights and obligations derive from G-d, not from the government. Nevertheless, as we approach 250 years of independence, secular humanists continue to argue that the state has the power to override G-d's commandments. The truth is, however, popular opinion cannot and should not override the foundation of inalienable rights and obligations granted by a Creator. These rights are beyond the influence of government.

Because secular humanism is attempting to replace G-d as the final moral arbiter of life and death, it is urgent that we restore the biblical values of America's founders . We ignore at our peril the universal moral ethics given to us by G-d through the Noahide Code, which were incorporated in our founding documents. These values were recognized on a bipartisan basis as the ethical and moral underpinnings of America . One immediate action that can be taken to support these inalienable rights is to encourage Congress to pass its resolution condemning assisted suicide.