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Suicide Watch: A Study in Contradictions

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.


In two recent news items, society's ambivalence about the sanctity of life was illustrated in an extraordinary juxtaposition of events. Just as conservative opponents had predicted, the taxpayers of Oregon were handed a new invoice to pay for helping poverty-stricken, terminally ill individuals kill themselves. During the same week, a federal judge in Ohio halted the execution of a convicted murderer who had requested to be put to death. The judge was seeking to protect this particular death row inmate from making a decision without first being assured that he had the requisite mental capacity.

When the nation's only doctor-assisted suicide law passed in 1994 and was affirmed in 1996, the question of whether taxpayers in Oregon should be burdened with the costs of the initiative was left unanswered. Oregon's so-called Death with Dignity Act allows doctors to prescribe lethal drugs at the request of terminally ill patients. The state panel known as the Health Services Commission justified their decision to force taxpayers to foot the bill for physician-assisted suicide with a familiar excuse. They asserted that it would constitute discrimination against the poor to deprive them of their right to commit suicide.

This smacks of the same kind of twisted logic that has been prevalent in intermediate appellate decisions in support of allowing this form of euthanasia. It is merely a distorted construction of the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution that reflects radical egalitarianism run amuck, as described by Robert Bork.

But is death itself not the ultimate form of discrimination? In actuality, true discrimination against the poor is manifest in society when a government subsidized, people-termination program exists at all. In many rural areas, hospice and palliative care are not even available. Many times proper counseling is also out of reach. Financial and psychological pressures on both the patients and their families could easily lead destitute individuals to elect to end their own lives.

Some attention must also be paid to the rights of taxpayers in this matter. How many of those who voted in favor of the law had contemplated the possibility that the process would eventually be financed with state dollars? When taxpayers are forced to pay for assisted suicide, some citizens are coerced into compromising their fundamental values of faith.

With regard to the second issue under discussion, even though death row inmate Wilford Berry Jr. expressed the desire to become the first person to be executed in Ohio since 1963, a federal judge wanted to prevent the occurrence for the convicted killer's own protection. When Judge Algenon L. Marbley stopped the execution, he mused that "caution is required" because mental capacity had been raised as an issue.

Berry had been sentenced to death for killing his boss in 1989. Not only did Berry want to die, his death had been mandated by due process of law and society's obligation to basic morality. Berry even refused to authorize his own appeal, but that did not deter the public defender who filed the federal appeal on behalf of Berry's mother and sister.

Maybe Berry should consider moving to Oregon. Then he would be able to enlist the services of Dr. Kervorkian and send taxpayers the bill.

Pro-life advocates have always argued that the convoluted rationale used to justify abortion would inevitably be used to substantiate other forms of medically sanctioned killing, such as voluntary or involuntary euthanasia.

The liberal elite has demonstrated an amazing ability to embrace inconsistent thought and outright hypocrisy. There can be no better example than this-when the protections bestowed upon a convicted murderer are greater than those given to the innocent unborn or terminally ill.

We have failed to heed the lessons from the people of Holland in their horrific experience with runaway "death with dignity" laws. Warnings that we are headed down a slippery slope have been given many times in the past. Some argue that the claims are overstated and overused. However, it is exceedingly difficult for society to comprehend the magnitude of an incline when it is already in a perilous slide.


Copyright © 1999 -
James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

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