What's wrong with this picture? Residents along Virginia's beaches are prohibited by the Endangered Species Act from removing dead and rotting sea turtles without a government permit. Meanwhile, two weeks ago, Attorney General Janet Reno announced that the Justice Department will not interfere with Oregon's new doctor-assisted suicide law.
In a new twist on the meaningless claim, "I'm personally opposed to abortion, but I don't want to impose my morals on others," Ms. Reno said she and President Clinton still oppose the Oregon law, but she said the Drug Enforcement Administration does not have authority under the federal Controlled Substances Act to take action against Oregon doctors who prescribe lethal doses of drugs for the terminally ill.
The Justice Department said Ms. Reno's decision should not be taken as a signal that she and the president are dropping their "long-standing opposition" to physician-assisted suicide. Well, what kind of signal is it, then? If this were a civil-rights case involving racial minorities instead of an equal- dying-opportunity case that potentially could touch every life in this nation, you can bet the administration would find some authority somewhere to do what it wanted done.
Those who believed 25 years ago that abortion would never lead to threats to life this side of the womb were wrong. Once a new right is granted by government, it is difficult to take it away, whether it was formed in bad law or in bad medicine. It starts with the "hard cases," the ones that appeal to emotions over reason. In the case of abortion, it was preteens impregnated by drunken stepfathers. At the other end of life a seemingly rational elderly person who claims to be in excruciating pain with an advanced malady is put before the cameras as the poster adult for the euthanasia movement. Trouble is, it never stops at the extremes.
Now some Oregonians are petitioning state government for tax subsidies to help underwrite this newly created "right to die" for those who can't "afford" to kill themselves or who need special help doing it. Doesn't anyone in Washington-or anywhere else-see where this is leading? Won't anyone shout "stop before it's too late"? Don't people study philosophy anymore (the study of theology is too much to expect in a nation that now regards what God says about anything as unconstitutional)?
Writing in the June issue of Crisis magazine, Boston College philosophy professor Peter Kreeft recalls a recent Time magazine cover story devoted to the questions: Why is everything getting better? Why is life so good today? Why does everybody feel so satisfied about the quality of life? "Time never questioned the assumption," notes professor Kreeft, "it just wondered why the music on the Titanic sounded so nice."
The article, he notes, judged the health of America by its economic indicators and ignored all other signposts that might have pointed in a different direction. "Perhaps Time is just Playboy with clothes on," he says. "For one kind of playboy, the world is one big whorehouse. For another kind, it's one great piggy bank. For both, things are getting better and better."
But the cultural indicators clearly show things are getting worse. Prosperity blinds us to the storm. And, as anyone who is unprepared for a tornado will tell you, failing to anticipate disaster enhances the likelihood of casualties.
The federal government's first obligation is to protect life. That also used to be the first obligation of physicians. Because the Supreme Court in 1973 removed a right to life for the unborn it neither endowed nor had the authority to take away, we are now faced with physician-assisted suicide in Oregon. And then what? Why, obligatory killing, of course. Just as soon as the authorities say it is in our best interest if we want to keep those economic numbers high, another step or two will be taken toward the abyss. Doctors, politicians, judges, and certain clergy will assure us that everything is just fine and that it's time to take our overdose of barbiturates as a patriotic act and a favor to the Dow Jones Industrial Averages in which we now trust.
Death itself is undignified. But assisted suicide is demeaning to life. It isn't death that needs assistance. It's life, which is now under attack at both ends in the killing fields of Oregon.
© 1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate