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Life-changing decisions

Court rulings shift euthanasia and abortion battles to the states

Issue: "The people have spoken," Feb. 4, 2006

Roe v. Wade opened the floodgates to abortion on demand. Gonzales v. Oregon may have done the same thing for euthanasia.

Abortion and euthanasia are bookends in the culture of death. With abortion, a mother chooses to kill her child. With euthanasia, a child might choose to kill his mother. As Joleen Jackson, a commenter on one of WORLD's blogs put it, euthanasia is "abortion in reverse."

In Gonzales v. Oregon, the Supreme Court under its new chief justice, John Roberts, upheld Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law, which so far has taken some 200 lives. Under its provisions, someone who has been certified as having less than six months to live may ask a doctor to prescribe a poison cocktail.

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Former Attorney General John Ashcroft, on behalf of the Bush administration, challenged the law, which was passed in a popular referendum, on the basis of federal drug laws. The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates prescription medicine, does not permit the administration of drugs in lethal doses. That federal regulation, so went the argument, should trump the state law.

The Supreme Court's ruling on the case, which new Attorney General Alberto Gonzales took up after Mr. Ashcroft left office, was quite conservative in a sense. It upheld a state law over and against a centralizing federal law. It struck down an intrusive bureaucratic regulation. Conservatives usually favor those kinds of rulings.

But the court declined even to consider the substantive issue of whether a state can overturn centuries of civilized law to allow suicide, much less one person killing another. The ruling was narrow, technical, and legalistic.

The vote was 6-3, with Chief Justice Roberts, along with Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, dissenting. Pro-lifers should be encouraged that Mr. Roberts, as they hoped, will be an ally. If Samuel Alito had been confirmed by then, the vote might have been 5-4. Close to a pro-life court, but not quite.

The ruling does not necessarily legalize euthanasia on demand. That will depend on each state. So far, Oregon's law allows doctors to kill only the terminally ill and only upon request.

But euthanasia has a way of sliding quickly down the slippery slope. The Netherlands started with this kind of law, allowing euthanasia only for the dying who ask for it. But now doctors may kill disabled patients who are incapable of giving consent, who "lack free will." Such as the mentally handicapped. And children. The Dutch have legalized not only suicide but also homicide.

Another Supreme Court ruling gives more hope to the pro-life cause. The unanimous decision in Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood upheld a New Hampshire law requiring parental notification and a mandatory waiting period before a minor could get an abortion. The court did require that the law provide exceptions for "medical emergencies," which could turn into a huge loophole. But upholding parental-notification and waiting-period laws is an important victory for the pro-life cause.

States that have passed regulations like these have dramatically decreased the number of abortions within their borders. Mississippi, North Dakota, and South Dakota have only one abortion clinic each still in business. Nineteen states have imposed significant restrictions on abortion, which may well pass constitutional muster, thanks to Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood.

In the PBS documentary The Last Abortion Clinic, an abortionist laments that the time is coming when Roe v. Wade may be "on the books, but nobody will be able to access the service" ("Scary movie," Nov. 5, 2005).

In light of these two rulings, the battle for life is shifting to the state level. This would be the case even if Roe v. Wade were overturned. State legislatures are more easily influenced than federal legislatures, much less federal courts. Fighting state by state, pro-lifers will lose some battles, but they will also have more victories.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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