When It's Right to Kill

November 01, 1994|By CAL THOMAS

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The most frightening entry on any ballot next Tuesday is no candidate, but something in Oregon called ''Measure 16.'' It will, in effect, erase the few safeguards that separate human life from all other living things.

If Measure 16 passes, doctors would be protected by law when they offered lethal drugs to ''terminally ill'' patients. Supporters claim that enough ''safeguards'' are built in, such as second and third opinions, written requests for the drugs by the patient and testimonies from others -- including at least one non-family member -- that the request for immediate departure from this life is rational and sincere. But as in all matters relating to things of supreme importance, once the precedent of doctor-assisted killing has been established, there will be no turning back.

Just imagine the court battles when some who don't qualify for doctor-assisted killing claim a violation of their constitutional right to end their lives under the equal-protection clause. Indeed, just last May, Federal Judge Barbara J. Rothstein ruled in Seattle that the legal arguments supporting a ''right'' to an abortion suggested that there was a constitutional ''right'' to medical help in committing suicide. Her decision, now under review by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, proves that once one category of life has been devalued, other categories of life quickly and inevitably are opened for re-evaluation. Especially when such lives no longer ''contribute'' to society, or become a burden on those who think life should be free of anything but the pursuit of personal pleasure, peace and affluence.

There is a philosophical, moral, political, legal, medical and theological chasm between allowing someone to die -- keeping the patient comfortable with pain-killing drugs and affirming their humanity in the process -- and causing someone to die. If the elderly and terminally ill are reclassified as ''vegetables'' in the public mind, or labeled in other ways that deprive them of their full humanity, then all of us are potentially at risk.

Skin color, a person's religion, handicap, age or state of health, the unborn -- labels such as these have been affixed to people at some time in our history and made them targets of state tyranny or discrimination designed to ''solve'' social problems. The potential for misuse of the findings in the controversial new book ''The Bell Curve,'' in which the authors claim that African-Americans as a class have less intelligence than whites as a class, falls into this pattern. If intelligence, race, religion or physical condition determines a person's value to society, then society may choose who has the right to live and who does not.

Jane M. Orient, executive director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, writes in her book ''Your Doctor Is Not In'': ''Euthanasia is supposed to be purely voluntary on the part of the patient. It is unlikely that people would vote for it otherwise. However, experience in the Netherlands suggests that it won't stay that way. Between 5,000 and 10,000 people are euthanized in Holland each year, of the 128,000 persons who die. The ratio of involuntary to voluntary euthanasia is about 2.5 to 1, and it is not known how many volunteer for a lethal injection in response to social pressure. Some Dutch patients carry a card saying, 'Please do not euthanize me.' For perspective, about 5,000 children were killed in the Nazi euthanasia program.''

Oregon has been a leader in efforts to protect wildlife and timber from human predators. It would be a tragedy if Oregonians unleashed a new kind of predator -- your doctor.

Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.

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