NEW YORK – Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch made it clear in a book and other writings what he thinks about assisted suicide and euthanasia: He’s not a fan.
His reasoning is not based on religious conviction but rather stems from his investigation of the subject stretching from ancient Greece to modern times.
In his 2006 book, “The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia,” Gorsuch derided the idea that a person could take their own life as a way of achieving “death with dignity.”
He wrote, “Human life is fundamentally and inherently valuable, and that the intentional taking of human life by private persons is always wrong.”
Gorsuch, whose nomination is to be taken up by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday, favors the power of the states and sticking closely to the texts of laws and the Constitution as they were understood when written. But his views on some controversial subjects, such as how widely the Second Amendment applies or whether abortion should be legal, are not known. Assisted suicide is a different matter.
Legalizing the practice, he said, could be a slippery slope. Doctors, insurance companies and the healthiest in society might wind up looking for ways to shorten the lives of the frail and the elderly to preserve resources for those with more promising futures. Doing so, he said, would have a disproportionate impact on the poor, the powerless and minorities who sometimes do not receive the same quality of medical care and pain-control management when they are ill.
“If a right to consensual homicide is eventually accepted into the law, we might ask what other ripple effects it could have on social and cultural norms. Why not, for example, allow individuals to sell their body parts or their lives?” he asked.
And he suggested that if killing became a professional duty under certain circumstances, medical care professionals may someday face “wrongful life” lawsuits from families upset their relatives suffered needlessly when a doctor or nurse failed to advocate for death.
Still, his book made clear that his views do not interfere with a right of individuals to choose through living wills to reject certain potentially life extending measures, such as the use of a ventilator. That right was established in a landmark court case brought after the parents of Karen Ann Quinlan asked doctors to remove the ventilator from their comatose and severely brain damaged daughter. After the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in the Quinlans’ favor in 1976, the respirator was removed. She did not die, however, until 1985, of pneumonia, at age 31.
Gorsuch’s opposition to assisted suicide is among the reasons that abortion-rights and anti-abortion groups alike believe that Gorsuch generally would join conservative justices in voting to restrict abortion. Gorsuch himself has not had a lot to say about abortion, either in his book or in more than 10 years as a federal appeals court judge. He was careful to note in the book that in the seminal Supreme Court abortion decision, Roe v. Wade, “a fetus does not qualify as a person.”
Gorsuch’s largely dispassionate analysis of assisted suicide and euthanasia was published by Princeton University Press the same year he was appointed by President George W. Bush to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.
In it, Gorsuch traced the history of assisted suicide from ancient Greece through the modern-day legalization of the practice in the Netherlands and the state of Oregon.
He notes, for instance, that it was referred to as “self-murder” in Rhode Island in 1647 in an age when the bodies of those committing suicide would be dragged around town, stakes driven through them. Sometimes, grieving families were forced into poverty as property was snatched away.
By 1939, he said, a poll showed up to 46 percent of Americans favored some form of legal euthanasia.
The book contains few religious references, but he wrote: “Though the Bible nowhere explicitly forbids suicide, from its earliest days Christianity taught against the practice.”
The book, catering to those interested in an in-depth legal analysis, had a limited audience until Gorsuch was nominated by President Donald Trump. Amazon.com now lists it as its hottest-selling euthanasia book. It came out less than a decade after the Supreme Court in 1997 ruled unanimously against doctors and their patients who claimed a constitutional right to death assisted by physicians.
The court left states free to resolve the question for themselves by voting 6 to 3 to reject then-Attorney General John Ashcroft’s directive to preclude doctors in Oregon from aiding suicides. The justices did not address the constitutionality of laws banning assisted suicide for terminally ill adults and Gorsuch wrote that he believed the court’s language encouraged state legislatures to experiment.
Besides Oregon, laws permitting assistance in dying for individuals have been passed in California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Montana and Washington.
In his book, Gorsuch wrote that in Oregon, the first state to permit assisted suicide, those who sought to die in the first seven years after legalization were almost all white and highly educated.
That, he wrote, highlighted the question of whether assisted suicide was “a matter of necessity or more of a lifestyle choice for persons who have always tended to control their lives and now wish to control their death.”
Poll after poll, he said, suggests that ethnic minorities in the U.S. are more concerned about the potential impact of legalized euthanasia on them than are their white counterparts. He said their relative unease might not be irrational given the quality of medical treatment provided to minority groups.
Derek Humphry, an 86-year-old best-selling author of “Final Exit,” about the practicalities of assisted suicide for the dying, said he was not alarmed by Gorsuch’s nomination while the “right to die is gathering momentum.”
He predicted more northern states would pass laws within the next two decades allowing physician-assisted suicide. And if the issue reaches the Supreme Court, “it’s a matter of nine opinions, not just his,” Humphry said.
Besides, he added, “People can change their minds on this as they grow older or see suffering.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.