Assisted Suicide and Abortion

Along with the news of Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s death on Friday, also released last week was a related story from Gallup, which reports that doctor-assisted suicide is the single most controversial issue in the U.S. today. (Not surprisingly, abortion is in the #2 spot.)

Since Kevorkian’s death, pro-choice writers like Slate’s William Saletan have been making comparisons between assisted suicide and abortion. And to be sure, there are some gobsmackingly obvious similarities between the two.

But as far as legality is concerned, it’s interesting to see those on the pro-choice side of the abortion debate make the comparison between abortion and assisted suicide, current U.S. law treats these two issues very differently.

Abortion, Assisted Suicide, and the Law

Saletan argues that the government to try to prevent assisted suicide because, in essence, people are going to do it anyway, and thus it would be futile to try to stop them. But as Ross Douthat observes:

Avoiding the police-state scenario doesn’t require treating self-slaughter as a protected right, and effectively licensing the Jack Kevorkians of the world to cater to anyone who wants to die badly enough to take the plunge. That’s how our laws treat abortion, and the result is a kind of abortion industry — in which the country’s largest abortion provider doubles as a major Democratic interest group, and for-profit freelancers take advantage of the vulnerable (a subject that Saletan has written about eloquently). If the right to die really became “a lot like” the right to abortion in America, there would be Swiss-style thanatoriums in most American cities, the Hemlock Society would be a major lobbying group (boasting, no doubt, that most of its resources go to palliative care rather than assisted suicide), and Kermit Gosnell-style thanatists would prey on the elderly while the courts looked the other way. …

If we treated abortion the way, say, Oregon treats assisted suicide, it would only be legally sanctioned in rare cases — involving, say, severe fetal deformity or a threat to the life of the mother — and even then it would have to be approved by two physicians and hedged around by waiting periods. That kind of regime would represent an enormous victory for pro-lifers, and it’s obviously not something that Saletan would support.

No one else in the pro-choice movement would, either. So clearly, when Saletan, et al., make the comparison between abortion and assisted suicide, they’re not saying the law should treat abortion the way it treats assisted suicide.

In fact, they’re saying just the opposite.

The Slippery Slope of Abortion and the Slippery Slope of Assisted Suicide

When abortion was first legalized in a handful of U.S. states in the late 1960s, it was was allowed only under limited circumstances. But of course, once the camel’s nose was under the tent, Roe v. Wade came just a few years later, resulting in abortion being effectively legal at any point during pregnancy, and for any reason.

And just as most advocates for the legalization of assisted suicide have been careful to say that it should only be legal under limited circumstances, it would be daft to deny that their ultimate goal is to open up the “right to die” to anyone who wants to kill himself for any reason.

It’s well known, per a Detroit Free Press investigation in 1997, that at least 60% of Kevorkian’s suicide patients were not terminally ill. Yet that didn’t stop HBO from producing fawning propaganda about him.

And why should it? As Douthat wrote in another column earlier this week:

If participating in a suicide is legally and ethically acceptable, in other words, it can’t just be because cancer is brutal and dementia is dehumanizing. It can only be because there’s a right to suicide.

And once we allow that such a right exists, the arguments for confining it to the dying seem arbitrary at best. We are all dying, day by day: do the terminally ill really occupy a completely different moral category from the rest? A cancer patient’s suffering isn’t necessarily more unbearable than the more indefinite agony of someone living with multiple sclerosis or quadriplegia or manic depression. And not every unbearable agony is medical: if a man losing a battle with Parkinson’s disease can claim the relief of physician-assisted suicide, then why not a devastated widower, or a parent who has lost her only child?

There’s no denying this is where the assisted suicide movement is inexorably headed.

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