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Jun 2, 2004 9:07 pm

Ayn Rand Institute Wrong on Assisted Suicide

The heirs of Ayn Rand who congregate in Irvine, California, with Leonard Peikoff have blundered. In a news release titled “Assisted Suicide: A Moral Right,” the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) expressed relief that Oregon’s physician-assisted suicide (PAS) law survived a challenge from the Bush administration.” Thomas A. Bowden, an attorney and ARI senior writer, said:

The real issue is whether each individual lives by right, or only by society's permission. Sometimes happiness becomes impossible to attain, as in the case of a painful, terminal illness. The right to life includes and implies the right to commit suicide. If society can require you to go on living, despite your better judgment, then your life does not belong to you, and you exist by permission, not by right.

Bowden is certainly right about that. The problem is that Oregon’s law does not embody the moral principle he describes. As the news release acknowledges, “Oregon's assisted suicide law permits terminally ill patients to ask their doctors for lethal doses of drugs, to be used, or not, by the patient at his own discretion” (emphasis added). Is that what advocates of self-ownership are fighting for: the “right” to ask one’s doctor for drugs with which to kill oneself? What if the doctor says no?

In fact, under the Oregon law the doctor has the authority to say no, which means this is not about individual rights but rather physician power. But why should physicians have such power? Suicide, after all, is a moral, not a medical, issue. As Thomas Szasz writes in Fatal Freedom: The Ethics and Politics of Suicide, “[T]he term ‘physician-assisted suicide’ is intrinsically mendacious. The physician is the principal, not the assistant. In the normal use of the English language, the person who assists another is the subordinate; the person whom he assists is his superior…. However, the physician engaging in PAS is superior to the patient: He determines who qualifies for the ‘treatment’ and prescribes the drug for it” (p. 65).

Speaking honestly, there is no right to assisted suicide (an oxymoron, Szasz writes). There is only the right to kill oneself. Once we're straight on that, we can see the problem clearly: the government prohibits nonphysicians from obtaining the means of painless, efficient suicide: namely drugs. Rather than coming to the defense of laws that give power to doctors, advocates of self-ownership and liberty should instead be calling for an end to all drug laws, including prescription laws.

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