When the Founding Fathers set up our system of government, they didn’t intend for states to be the poor cousins of the federal government. Rather, they were to be independent entities, with the federal government acting as their agent when dealing with other nations or as the arbiter of disputes between states.
The attraction of this system was — and is — that states could tailor different laws to address issues specific to their people. Moreover, since states sometimes face similar problems, they can try different solutions and other states can see which works best. This experimentation allows Americans to try several possible solutions at the same time.
With states’ independence in mind, the voters of Oregon in 1997 confronted the issue of terminally ill patients who wished to die. They voted to allow physician-assisted suicide under narrow circumstances. The law requires two doctors to agree that a terminally ill patient is mentally competent and has less than six months to live before that patient can receive a lethal prescription.
This fairly narrow law sent religious conservatives to the barricades to defend the lives of people who wanted to end theirs. Among them was then-Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri, who introduced legislation to amend the Controlled Substances Act to forbid physicians from writing prescriptions for life-ending medicines.
The proposal wasn’t passed, but Ashcroft wouldn’t be deterred. When he became George W. Bush’s attorney general in 2000, he reinterpreted the Controlled Substances Act to threaten physicians with the loss of prescription writing privileges if they helped anyone commit suicide. That prompted the state of Oregon to sue the federal government for overstepping its authority and forcing itself into state matters. On Jan. 17, in a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with Oregon.
The court held that the “authority claimed by the attorney general is both beyond his expertise and incongruous with the statutory purposes and design” and that “Congress did not have this far-reaching intent to alter the federal-state balance.”
The federal government and its agents, regardless of which party has its hands on the levers of power, have a tendency to try to increase its authority. They can’t help it; politicians and bureaucrats always seek to expand their power. However, Ashcroft’s assertion of authority over what is properly a matter for individual states flouted a 1997 Supreme Court decision that held the Constitution does not address a right to die — making the matter one for state governments, not the feds to decide.
The recent decision reaffirms the right of the people to make end-of-life decisions. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., agreed, saying the decision, “has stopped, for now, the administration’s attempts to wrest control of decisions rightfully left to the states and individuals.”
The court didn’t completely remove the federal government from the equation, though. The decision does not preclude Congress from amending the Controlled Substances Act to bar physicians from prescribing life-ending drugs, so states can still be overruled by Washington.
This should be an issue for states to address. But if Congress acts to pre-empt such laws, that’s not quite as bad as an unelected official taking that power for himself. At least Congress answers to the people.
Intensely personal decisions should not be dictated from far-off Washington; they should be decided as close to home as possible. Oregon’s Death with Dignity law doesn’t force anyone to end their own suffering. It simply allows terminally ill patients to choose their method of passing. And on such matters, Washington should remain mum.