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Princeton University Press
The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia

The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia

by Neil M. Gorsuch
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The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia provides the most thorough overview of the ethical and legal issues raised by assisted suicide and euthanasia—as well as the most comprehensive argument against their legalization—ever published.

In clear terms accessible to the general reader, Neil Gorsuch thoroughly assesses the strengths and weaknesses of leading contemporary ethical arguments for assisted suicide and euthanasia. He explores evidence and case histories from the Netherlands and Oregon, where the practices have been legalized. He analyzes libertarian and autonomy-based arguments for legalization as well as the impact of key U.S. Supreme Court decisions on the debate. And he examines the history and evolution of laws and attitudes regarding assisted suicide and euthanasia in American society.

After assessing the strengths and weaknesses of arguments for assisted suicide and euthanasia, Gorsuch builds a nuanced, novel, and powerful moral and legal argument against legalization, one based on a principle that, surprisingly, has largely been overlooked in the debate—the idea that human life is intrinsically valuable and that intentional killing is always wrong. At the same time, the argument Gorsuch develops leaves wide latitude for individual patient autonomy and the refusal of unwanted medical treatment and life-sustaining care, permitting intervention only in cases where an intention to kill is present.

Those on both sides of the assisted suicide question will find Gorsuch's analysis to be a thoughtful and stimulating contribution to the debate about one of the most controversial public policy issues of our day.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691140971
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 04/12/2009
Series: New Forum Books , #55
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 349,204
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Neil M. Gorsuch is an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Read an Excerpt

The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia

By Neil M. Gorsuch

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-12458-2

Chapter One


WHETHER to permit assistance in suicide and euthanasia is among the most contentious legal and public policy questions in America today. The issue erupted into American public consciousness on June 4, 1990, with the news that Dr. Jack Kevorkian-a slightly built, greying, retired Michigan pathologist-had helped Janet Adkins, a fifty-four-year-old Alzheimer's patient, kill herself. Dr. Kevorkian later revealed that he had not taken the medical history of Ms. Atkins, conducted a physical or mental examination, or consulted Ms. Adkins's primary care physician. Dr. Kevorkian had simply agreed to meet Ms. Adkins in his Volkswagen van, which he had outfitted with a "suicide machine" consisting of three chemical solutions fed into an intravenous line needle. Dr. Kevorkian tried five times to insert the needle before eventually succeeding. Ms. Adkins then pressed a lever releasing death-inducing drugs into her body. Dr. Murray Raskind, one of the physicians who cared for Ms. Adkins in the early stages of her disease, later testified that she was physically fit but probably not mentally competent at the time of her death.

Since Janet Adkins's death first made national headlines, Dr. Kevorkian claims to have assisted morethan 130 suicides. Derek Humphry, founder of The Hemlock Society, a group devoted to promoting the legalization of euthanasia, has praised Dr. Kevorkian for "breaking the medical taboo on euthanasia." The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) aggressively took up his legal defense.

While perhaps the most notorious contemporary American proponent of assisted suicide and euthanasia, Dr. Kevorkian hardly stands alone. In 1984 the Netherlands became the first country in the world to endorse certain forms of assisted suicide and euthanasia. The Dutch Supreme Court declared that, although euthanasia was punishable as murder under the nation's penal code, physicians could claim an "emergency defence" under certain circumstances. After several failed attempts, in November 2000 the lower house of the Dutch Parliament voted 104-40 in favor of a physician-assisted suicide exception to the nation's homicide laws, codifying-and liberalizing in some key respects-the prior judicial "emergency defence"; the Dutch Senate gave its assent in April 2001. The Northern Territory of Australia passed a law permitting assisted suicide in 1996, but that legislation was criticized by the Australian Medical Association and quickly voided months later by Australia's federal parliament. Belgium has now also followed the Dutch example, adopting a law that took effect in September 2002.

Within the United States, Dr. Timothy Quill, a University of Rochester professor, provoked early debate on the assisted suicide question in 1991, writing an article in the New England Journal of Medicine discussing and defending his decision to prescribe barbiturates to a cancer patient, even though she admitted that she might use them at some indefinite time in the future to kill herself. A New York grand jury was convened but ultimately declined to bring an indictment for assisted suicide; the state medical board also considered pressing disciplinary charges but eventually relented, reasoning that Dr. Quill had written a prescription for drugs that had a legitimate medical use for his patient (as a sleeping aid for her insomnia), and that he could not have definitely known that the patient would use them to kill herself. Ruling, in essence, that the evidence was too equivocal to conclude that Dr. Quill intended to cause the death of his patient, the board declared the matter closed.

In 1992 a gynecology resident submitted an anonymous article to the Journal of the American Medical Association that was the subject of a long-running debate in prominent American medical journals. Entitled "It's Over Debbie," the article described how the author administered a lethal injection to a terminal cancer patient (an act of euthanasia, not assisted suicide), whom he had never previously met, after her plea to "get this over with."

After its publication in the early 1990s, the Hemlock Society's book, Final Exit, quickly rocketed to the New York Times's best-seller list. With more than a half million copies sold, it provides step-by-step instructions (in easy-to read large print) on various methods of "self-deliverance." In February 2006 its sales on still ranked 9,845 among all books on offer (which is very high indeed), and it was priced at $10.20 ("you save $4.80; usually ships within 24 hours"). Chapter titles range from "Self-Deliverance by Plastic Bag" (a recommended method) to "Bizarre Ways to Die" (discussing the relative merits of guns, ropes, and firecrackers) and "Going Together" (ideas for double suicides). A New England Journal of Medicine study found that instances of asphyxiation by plastic bag increased markedly shortly after the book's publication.

The public discussion sparked in the early 1990s by Kevorkian, Quill, Final Exit, and Dutch practices quickly matured into a growing debate in academic circles. By the mid- to late 1990s, thinkers from a variety of moral and philosophical perspectives began publishing books pressing the case for legalizing assisted suicide and euthanasia-including Ronald Dworkin in 1993, Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner in 1995, and Richard Epstein in 1999.

The growing academic and public discussion of assisted suicide and euthanasia was accompanied by increasing political and legal activism. In 1988 an early voter referendum campaign in California aimed at toppling the state's law banning the assistance of suicide failed to attract the necessary 450,000 verified signatures to secure a spot on the ballot. Another effort just four years later not only secured a spot on the ballot, but garnered 48 percent of the vote. A similar 1991 effort in Washington State obtained 46. percent of the vote. By 1993 the referenda campaign bore its first fruit when Oregon voters narrowly voted to legalize assisted suicide, 51 percent to 49 percent, though subsequent legal challenges delayed implementation until 1997.

Since 1994, over fifty bills have been introduced to legalize assisted suicide or euthanasia in at least nineteen state legislatures, and two voter referenda modeled on Oregon have been attempted. All have failed so far. In fact, several states have moved to reaffirm or strengthen their laws prohibiting assisting suicide, including Michigan, New York, Maryland, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Virginia. In all, the vast majority of states (approximately thirty-eight) have chosen to retain or have recently enacted statutes expressly banning assisted suicide, and most of the remaining states either treat assisted suicide as a common law crime or have health care directive statutes expressly disapproving of the practice. In 1997 Congress entered the fray, too, and adopted a new law denying the use of federal funds in connection with any act of assisted suicide. In the last several years, a number of other countries, including England, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Hungary, have likewise considered and rejected proposals to overturn their laws banning assisted suicide.

With relatively little to show for their early voter referenda and legislative efforts, American euthanasia proponents opened a new front in the mid1990s, filing federal law suits in Washington State and New York seeking to have statutes banning assisted suicide declared unconstitutional. Wildly disparate trial court rulings resulted. One trial court found a constitutional right to assistance in suicide; another held that no such right exists. Appellate courts reviewing these decisions eventually produced opinions supporting a right to assisted suicide but using very different rationales and only over vociferous dissents. In 1997 the cases culminated in argument before the United States Supreme Court in a pair of cases, Washington v. Glucksberg and Quill v. Vacco. In 9-0 decisions, the Court upheld the Washington and New York laws banning assisted suicide. At the time, the press hailed the Court's rulings as major victories for opponents of euthanasia and assisted suicide. But few noticed that critical concurring justices addressed only the question whether laws banning assisted suicide are facially unconstitutional-that is, unconstitutional in all possible applications-and specifically reserved for a later case the question whether those laws are unconstitutional as applied to terminally ill adults seeking death. Thus, far from definitively resolving the assisted suicide issue, the Court's decisions seem to assure that the debate over assisted suicide and euthanasia is not yet over-and may have only begun.

A great many people support legalizing assisted suicide and euthanasia. One of the central purposes of this book is to identify and explore the strengths and weaknesses of the legal and moral arguments deployed by those who seek to overthrow existing laws against those practices. Specifically, in chapter 2, I discuss the Washington and New York cases and seek to ascertain their implications for future legal and ethical debate over assisted suicide and euthanasia. I suggest that these cases raise four key questions, or arguments, on which future debate is likely to focus: Is there historical precedent for legalization? Do principles of equal protection or fairness dictate that, if we permit patients to refuse life-sustaining care like food and water, we must also as a matter of logical consistency allow assisted suicide and euthanasia? Does proper respect for principles of personal autonomy and self-determination compel legalization? And would legalization, in a purely utilitarian calculus, represent the legal rule or solution that would provide the greatest good for the greatest number of persons?

On each and every one of these points, various contemporary moral and legal writers have given conflicting views. Some have suggested that history is moving inexorably toward legalization; others contend that there is no meaningful way to distinguish between the right of a patient to refuse care and the right of a patient to seek out euthanasia; a virtual chorus has argued that proper respect for personal autonomy and self-determination demands that we respect the right of individuals to take their lives with willing assistants; and others still submit that legalization would carry with it more benefits than costs and would thus maximize social happiness on a utilitarian scale. In chapters 3 through 8, I analyze each of these various contemporary arguments for legalization in turn. In the end, I submit, the force of some of these arguments is overstated while the power of others is actually understated. Readers interested in particular lines of argument can focus on individual chapters that address those issues. Chapter 3 focuses on the historical record. Chapter 4 addresses the arguments from equal protection or fairness suggesting that recognizing a right to refuse life-sustaining medical care is tantamount to adopting a right to assisted suicide or euthanasia. Chapters 5 and 6 look to the arguments from personal autonomy. Chapter 7 discusses empirical and utilitarian arguments based on the experiments and experience in the Netherlands and Oregon. Chapter 8 takes a closer look at two leading arguments for legalization from autonomy and utility posed by Judge Posner and Richard Epstein.

Having reviewed extant arguments for legalization suggested by the case law and in contemporary moral-legal debate, in the final part of the book, chapters 9 and 10, I pursue the second purpose of this book, outlining an argument for retaining current laws banning assisted suicide and euthanasia that has received relatively little attention in the American debate over assisted suicide and euthanasia. It is an argument premised on the idea that all human beings are intrinsically valuable and the intentional taking of human life by private persons is always wrong. In chapter 9, I examine the roots of this principle in secular moral theory and the common law, consider its application to the assisted suicide and euthanasia debate, and address a number of potential criticisms along the way. In chapter 10, I suggest that the principle that all human life is intrinsically valuable may help illuminate and provide guidance in end-of-life disputes beyond assisted suicide and euthanasia, including in the increasingly frequent cases involving the discontinuation of life-sustaining medical care for incompetent persons.

Finally, in late 2001 the presidential administration of George W. Bush issued an executive order that sought to prevent Oregon doctors from dispensing federally regulated medicines to assisted suicides. The administration argued that Oregon doctors helping patients commit suicide were not engaged in a "legitimate medical practice" under the Controlled Substance Act, the federal law regulating the use of pharmacological substances. The federal government's order precipitated a legal battle with the state of Oregon and its allies that culminated in a Supreme Court hearing in October 2004 and a ruling-rendered as this book was going to print-that perhaps raises as many questions as it answers. The lawsuit, its resolution, and its implications for future debate over assisted suicide and euthanasia in America are discussed briefly in the epilogue.

Distilled to its essence, this book might be said to have two purposes- to introduce and critically examine the primary legal and ethical arguments deployed by those who favor legalization, and to set forth an argument for retaining existing law that few have stopped to consider. It aims to be of interest to all of those curious about the ethical and legal aspects of the assisted suicide debate, whatever views they espouse, and to contribute to a fuller and more fully informed debate.

Before proceeding further, a definitional note is important. While the term "assisted suicide" is often used to describe Dr. Kevorkian's practices, it is really something of a misnomer. There is no crime called "assisted suicide," and, as we shall see in chapter 3, no legal penalty for the patient who seeks help in dying. Instead, the crime at issue is assisting suicide, and it is targeted solely at those who help another commit suicide. The legal right sought by proponents is thus, to be precise, a right to receive assistance in killing oneself without the assistant suffering adverse legal consequences. Recognizing its imprecision, I will nonetheless defer to pervasive usage and employ the term "assisted suicide" as a short-hand description for the proffered right.

Using the term "assisted suicide" to describe Dr. Kevorkian's practices is, however, a misnomer in yet another respect. Dr. Kevorkian has sought to establish not only a right to receive assistance in suicide (what we shall call assisted suicide), but also a right to be killed by another person, so long as the act is performed with the consent of the decedent and the killer is motivated by compassion or mercy (what is properly labeled euthanasia). In fact, in 1999 Dr. Kevorkian killed a patient for a nationwide television audience on the program 60 Minutes, and he did so specifically to provoke a public debate on the distinct practice of euthanasia. (Dr. Kevorkian was later convicted of second-degree murder, after a trial in which he chose to act as his own counsel.)

Though an analytical distinction exists between assisted suicide and euthanasia, there is a great deal they share in common, and those who support legalizing one tend to support legalizing the other for the same or similar reasons-whether it be out of a sense that fairness requires killing those who wish to die but who cannot kill themselves, a desire to promote individual autonomy whether it is expressed in terms of a desire to kill oneself or have another do so, or a sense that the actions serve a similar social utility in allowing patients to avoid needless suffering. That said, some advocates of assisted suicide, especially in the United States in the last several years, have sought to draw a line between the practices, seeking to obtain legal permission only for assisted suicide but not euthanasia. Oregon's law, for example, permits only assisted suicide, not euthanasia. But is there really any meaningful moral distinction that can be drawn between assisted suicide and euthanasia? If not, what is at work here?


Excerpted from The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia by Neil M. Gorsuch Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Chapter 1: Introduction 1

Chapter 2: The Glucksberg and Quill Controversies: The Judiciary's (Non)Resolution of the Assisted Suicide Debate 8

2.1 The Washington Due Process Litigation 8

2.2 The New York Equal Protection Litigation 11

2.3 The Final Battle? The Supreme Court Does (and Does Not) Decide 14

2.4 The Aftermath of Glucksberg and Quill 17

Chapter 3: The Debate over History 19

3.1 Which History? 20

3.2 The Project 22

3.3 The Ancients 22

3.4 Early Christian History 25

3.5 English Common Law 28

3.6 Colonial American Experience 29

3.7 The Modern Consensus on Suicide and Its Assistance 30

3.8 The Euthanasia Movement 33

3.9 Prevailing Law Today 43

3.10 Conclusion 46

Chapter 4: Arguments from Fairness and Equal Protection: If a Right to Refuse, Then a Right to Assisted Suicide? 48

4.1 An Act /Omission Distinction? 49

4.2 A Causation-Based Distinction? 51

4.3 Toward an Intent-Based Distinction: The Insight of the Double Effect Principle 53

4.4 Some (Initial) Arguments against Double Effect: Conflating Intent and Foresight 57

4.5 Distinguishing Suicide, Assisted Suicide, and Euthanasia from the Right to Refuse: Intending versus Foreseeing Death 62

4.6 Some (Additional) Criticisms of Double Effect as Applied to the Assisted Suicide Debate 69

4.7 Conclusion 75

Chapter 5: Casey and Cruzan: Do They Intimate a Right to Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia? 76

5.1 The "Reasoned Judgment" Test and Its Critics 76

5.2 Casey-Based Arguments 79

5.3 Cruzan-Based Arguments 82

5.4 Conclusion 84

Chapter 6: Autonomy Theory's Implications for the Debate over Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia 86

6.1 The Autonomy Debate 86

6.2 The Neutralist View of Autonomy 87

6.3 The Harm Principle's Competing View 89

6.4 Perfectionism and Autonomy 90

6.5 The Implications of Autonomy Theory for the Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia Debate 93

Chapter 7: Legalization and the Law of Unintended Consequences: Utilitarian Arguments for Legalization 102

7.1 The Dutch Experience: "Virtually Abuse-Free"? 103

7.2 The Oregon Experience: An "All-Too Conscientious" Statutory Regime? 115

7.3 Legalization and Other Unintended Consequences 125

7.4 Decriminalization as a "Costless" Enterprise? 132

7.5 How to "Balance" the Costs and Benefits of Legalization? 138

7.6 Conclusion 141

Chapter 8: Two Test Cases: Posner and Epstein 143

8.1 Posner's Utilitarian Case for Assisted Suicide 143

8.2 Posner's and Epstein's Libertarian Case for Assisted Suicide 152

Chapter 9: An Argument against Legalization 157

9.1 The Inviolability of Human Life 157

9.2 What Does It Mean to Respect Human Life as a Basic Good? 163

9.3 Some Objections 167

9.4 The Future of the Oregon Experiment? 176

Chapter 10: Toward a Consistent End-of-Life Ethic: The "Right to Refuse" Care for Competent and Incompetent Patients 181

10.1 The Inviolability of Life and the "Right to Refuse" for Competent Persons 182

10.2 The "Right to Refuse" and Infant Patients 191

10.3 The "Right to Refuse" and Incompetent Adult Patients 204

10.4 Conclusions 215

Epilogue 219

Appendix A: Certain American Statutory Laws Banning or Disapproving of Assisted Suicide 227

Appendix B: Statistical Calculations 229

Notes 231

Bibliography 285

Index 303

What People are Saying About This

Eugene Volokh

A thoughtful, sober, and thorough work, which should be read by supporters, opponents, and the undecided alike.
Eugene Volokh, UCLA School of Law

Daniel Callahan

In a world where there are now many books and articles on assisted suicide and euthanasia, Neil Gorsuch's book is a timely and significant contribution. While the primary focus is on the law, with a systematic survey of pertinent legal and court decisions, the book manages as well to nicely set the problem within a broader international context. His insights and arguments are penetrating and pertinent, and anyone who reads this book will come away with an expanded horizon of understanding.
Daniel Callahan, The Hastings Center, author of "The Research Imperative: What Price Better Health?"

John Keown

This may well become one of the most important books in the field. It is timely, thorough, well reasoned, well structured, and well written. Its reply to the arguments for legalizing physician-assisted suicide is measured, fair, and persuasive.
John Keown, Georgetown University, author of "Euthanasia, Ethics, and Public Policy"


Gorsuch's book is an exceptionally fine contribution to one of the most timely debates in ethics and public policy: the question of assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia. It sorts out the arguments for and against relaxing legal prohibitions on choices of these kinds, and does so in tandem with an account—close, accurate, straightforward, and uncluttered—of the developing law in statutes and cases. It could quickly become the leading book in the field.
Robert P. George, Princeton University, and the "President's Commission on Bioethics"

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