The following essay was first posted in 2004 and most recently revised in 2010.
In the U.S. Senate, Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon has fought to prevent the use of federal drug law against doctors involved in assisted suicide. Oregon is one of only three U.S. states that now allow assisted suicide, and Sen. Wyden makes a states' rights case for his position.
The principle of states' rights is important in American history and law, but was greatly damaged by its use to defend slavery and segregation. It is disturbing to see a liberal Democrat use it to support suicide. It is even more disturbing when you know that Wyden voted against assisted suicide in 1994--and again in 1997--when it was on the Oregon ballot. "Personally, I have strong moral reservations about physician-assisted suicide," he wrote in the New York Times in 1999. But, hey, Oregon voters decided to have the quick-death option--and who are the Feds to interfere?
The "personally opposed, but..." warhorse has received heavy workouts in recent decades. Gaunt and spavined, winded and tired, it is hauled out again for service in the euthanasia and assisted suicide battles. Despite its pathetic appearance, it still has political value.
Many politicians backed the Vietnam War despite "strong moral reservations" about it--and many practical reservations as well. That war finally started winding down as the war against unborn children started heating up. True to form, many politicians declared that they were personally opposed to abortion, but would not impose their views on anyone else. Soon many of them voted government money to pay for abortions. Didn't mind imposing their funding views on other citizens, did they?
Other politicians learned that "personally opposed" also worked with the death penalty. Janet Reno used it when President Clinton announced her nomination as Attorney General. "I'm personally opposed to the death penalty, as I've told the President," she said, but added that "I've probably asked for it as much as many prosecutors in the country and have secured it." Later she noted that one of the best prosecutors who worked for her in Florida "will tell you that the boss [Reno] sometimes won't let him waive the death penalty, he has got to ask for it. I want to see that the law is vigorously carried out."
If you were threatened with federal death row, wouldn't you rather have an Attorney General who was honestly for the death penalty, but less hawkish in applying it?
In election campaigns, the "personally opposed" strategy is fairly simple: You tell the opponents of homicide that your heart is with them but, gosh, there are all these procedural and constitutional problems. It's hard to find a way to oppose it effectively but, by golly, if you ever find it, you will follow it. By the time the opponents realize that you have hoodwinked them, you are so firmly entrenched in power that there is not much they can do about it.
The right to life, eloquently proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, means little today. We are approaching the point where the only people who have a government-guaranteed right to life will be those who need it least: the healthy and the powerful. Those who need it most--the very young and the very old, the weak, the disabled, the depressed--are more vulnerable every day.
Neither the Declaration nor the Constitution says anything at all about a "right to die." Yet the powers-that-be have decided that this, not the right to life, is the defining right of our era--and a humanitarian good, something intended for our benefit.
It is considered rude to note that Adolf Hitler, too, suggested that euthanasia is humanitarian when he used the term "mercy death" (der Gnadentod) and when he spoke of giving "relief through death" to persons with severe mental illness. He also had other goals in mind, such as saving money and cleansing the gene pool. Some of our own euthanasia advocates have other goals in mind, especially saving money.
We do not have to go back to Nazi euthanasia for warnings, though. The Netherlands, a democratic and "progressive" country, slipped quickly from allowing euthanasia only on a voluntary basis to killing people who have not volunteered and cannot defend themselves: unconscious patients and infants.
Politicians who really do personally oppose euthanasia and assisted suicide should find the courage to oppose such practices politically as well--before it is too late for them to make a difference.
There are good models in U.S. history for them to follow, including Sen. Robert La Follette, Sr. (R-Wis.), who was pilloried for his opposition to American involvement in the First World War. According to historian David P. Thelen, when the senator spoke in Madison several years later, friends there urged him not to mention the war. But La Follette told his audience that he didn't want anyone's vote "under any misapprehension of where I stand. I would not change my record on the war for that of any man, living or dead."
Thelen added: "At first stunned, the audience suddenly erupted into the greatest ovation of La Follette's life." The grand old progressive is remembered and honored today, long after most of his colleagues have been forgotten.
There is a great model in English history, too, in Sir Thomas More's resistance to King Henry VIII. More was sentenced to the horrific execution of hanging, drawing and quartering; but Henry reduced his old friend's sentence to mere beheading. Today's politicians are more likely to face penalties such as not being invited to the best dinners in Washington or not making lists of likely presidential candidates. Yet those whose personal and public convictions are the same, like La Follette's and More's, may be honored in history more than some presidents.
Politicians today should ponder these words of Thomas More: "...in things touching conscience, every true and good subject is more bound to have respect to his said conscience and to his soul than to any other thing in all the world besides."