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Assisted Suicide Advocates Seek to Euthanize The Rule of Law

Original Article

It is one thing when ideological activists try to redefine terms to win a political debate. It is quite another when a judge does it by judicial fiat.

But that is precisely what may happen in Connecticut. After advocates failed to legalize assisted suicide in the last legislative session, two Connecticut physicians—aided by the assisted suicide advocacy group Compassion and Choices (formerly Hemlock Society)—filed a lawsuit requesting a court order unilaterally changing the definition of suicide. When a doctor lethally prescribes an overdose of drugs to a terminally ill patient for the purpose of self killing, the lawsuit claims, it should not be legally considered a suicide, but rather, “aid in dying.”

The term “aid in dying” was coined by Compassion and Choices several years ago as a euphemistic advocacy tool to better promote its death agenda. Opinion polls clearly demonstrate that the public reacts negatively to the terms “suicide” and “assisted suicide.” But if the same act is camouflaged by a soothing sounding term that masks the harshness of what is being done, public opposition softens. Hence, the group’s “Language Matters Press Kit” asserts that it is wrong to call self killing by a terminally ill patient with the assistance of a doctor “suicide” because the word “is politicized language that implies a value judgment and carries with it a social stigma.”

Never mind that it is accurate. The dictionary definition of “suicide” is “the act or an instance of taking one’s own life voluntarily and intentionally.” And forget for the moment that fear of stigma can save lives. C & C is blatantly promoting a postmodern word engineering scheme that would sacrifice accurate and precise legal lexicon on the altar of emotional personal narratives.

Lest you think such subterfuge cannot succeed, it already has. Under Washington State’s newly legalized assisted suicide regime, participating doctors are legally required to lie on the death certificate by listing the cause of death as the underlying disease rather than the prescribed suicide drug overdose.

In Connecticut, advocates seek to impose a similar redefinition, thus effectively overturning the law that punishes one who “intentionally causes or aids another person, other than force, duress or deception, to commit suicide” as second degree manslaughter. In other words, the suit seeks to legalize some assisted suicides by the simple expedient of having them declared not suicides. As Compassion and Choice’s attorney, Kathryn Tucker told the Hartford Courant, “Obviously, the crux of this case is what is suicide and what is aid in dying.”

Consider the surrealistic possibilities: If the lawsuit succeeded and I gave a terminally ill friend in Connecticut an overdose with which to intentionally end his life, it would remain a crime. But if my friend consulted a doctor he doesn’t know who is affiliated with Compassion and Choices to obtain the overdose—as happens with most assisted suicides in Oregon— it would merely be legal “aid in dying”—this, even though the act, the motive, and the lethal consequence would be precisely the same in each instance. That’s not only nuts, it is blatantly Orwellian.

It is also dangerous beyond the issue of assisted suicide. The United States, we are often told, is a nation of laws and not of men. If we are to be governed by the rule of law, words have to matter and definitions must be capable of being relied upon. But if a commonly understood term can simply be tossed out in order to legalize what the people’s elected representatives made a crime, why couldn’t a judge similarly criminalize an otherwise legal act via the same sleight of hand machination? Indeed, should judges decide they can unilaterally change the rules by simply redefining terms, what law could permanently be relied upon?

The case should be a slam-dunk, the lawsuit thrown forcefully out of court. But the way things are in the courts today, you never know what will happen. In this sense, the assisted suicide lawsuit in Connecticut not only threatens to remove a vital legal protection from vulnerable patients, it is a lethal threat to the rule of law itself.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.