Government Power and the Culture of Death in California

The Governor of California this week enacted state authorized physician-assisted killing as a legitimate medical practice. Today millions of Americans mourn at this heartless and brutal exercise of government power.

Because God created men and women in his image, all human life is inherently invaluable. Underlying the Governor’s exercise of power is a rejection of this inviolable standard present in our deeply rooted legal traditions, in favor of a morally relative measure where government authorities choose when and whether a human life has positive value.

Ultimately, Governor Jerry Brown’s exercise of power here proceeds from the fundamentally erroneous premise that human life in certain conditions has no positive value.  That premise has incalculably grave implications for all of us.  Here Governor Brown, based upon his own personal policy preferences, enacts the right to take life under one situation he deems appropriate.  Indeed, the governor is quoted as saying, “In the end, I was left to reflect on what I would want…”

When government authorities abandon moral absolutes today, it becomes easy tomorrow to choose death in other ways, for other people, in other situations, since the positive value of life has become an immorally relative individual choice.  For example, the Nazis first legalized voluntary euthanasia, then involuntarily killed hundreds of thousands of the mentally ill – all prior to the unspeakable tragedy of the holocaust.

What we sow today, we will reap tomorrow. The weaknesses in the California law are similar to weaknesses in Dutch assisted-suicide laws – ultimately resulting in numerous situations where physicians assisted in the killing of patients without their consent. California’s law grants immunity to the physician yet lacks any legitimate enforcement mechanisms for physician non-compliance, all the while utterly failing to protect the family.

As the fundamental units of society, the law must protect families, at least if order and liberty are to prosper.  Yet physician-assisted suicides devastate families.  Imagine the shock of making a weekly visit to your parent’s nursing home, only to discover that a physician dispensed a drug to help your parent commit suicide. California’s law requires no pre-suicide notification to families.

The toll on family life is incalculable.  Allowing physicians to dispense drugs to assist in killing has an insidious effect on families who support seniors, burdening both the family and the dying.  The number of patients in Oregon reporting a concern about being a burden on the family increased exponentially, subsequent to the passage of Oregon’s physician-assisted suicide law.  Physician-assisted suicide creates in practice a frightening “duty to die” – frightening because the practice of physician-assisted suicide has been reported to be so imperfect a means of death that in one Dutch study fully 20 percent of patients given what was considered to be a lethal dose lived for more than three hours, in some cases requiring the physician to intervene with a lethal injection which would be illegal under the California law.  According to reports, families are occasionally called on to intervene with pillows or plastic bags.

The Hippocratic Oath written during the fifth to fourth centuries B.C. declares, “I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect.”  The American Medical Association and more than 40 other national and state medical and health care organizations have stated that “the ethical prohibition against physician-assisted suicide is a cornerstone of medical ethics.”  According to the AMA, physician-assisted suicide is “fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer…”  The Governor’s decision rejects this position and the underlying inviolable standard which serves as its foundation. Underlying his enactment instead is a morally relative foundation, where each individual chooses when and whether a human life has positive value. The grave implications for our nation that accompany such a choice are clear. Foundations do matter.  In this regard, it is perhaps well for us to remind ourselves of the ancient Biblical truth that “righteousness exalts a nation.”

Legitimizing the killing of human beings as medical practice merely creates an illusion of a nation willing to protect fundamental freedoms. Such a course inevitably erodes the fundamental foundations of our country. Although structural institutions of free government may stand for a time, the essence for which they stand eventually ceases to exist.  Those who came before us built our constitutional democratic republic upon fundamental foundations of decency.  It is now our watch.  Some will inevitably seize upon the California Governor’s decision to justify expanding doctor-assisted killing to other states. Those in other states who understand that morality is not relative must respond by decisively euthanizing similar legislative initiatives democratically.

Professor William Wagner serves as President of Salt & Light Global. He holds the academic rank of Distinguished Professor (Law). Before joining academia, he served as a federal judge in the United States Courts, a senior federal prosecutor in the Department of Justice, and as a legal counsel in the United States Senate.