Recent history of euthanasia and assisted suicide in America

In Maine, on November 7, 2000, citizens were asked to vote on approval of the “Maine Death with Dignity Act.” The question on the ballot was, “Should a terminally ill adult who is of sound mind be allowed to ask for and receive a doctor’s help to die?”

On closer examination, what was called “a doctor’s help to die” did not include a commitment to provide care, concern, and pain control as long as the patient lived, but a prescription for a fatal drug overdose. Maine citizens did not approve the measure.

After the vote, most opponents of assisted suicide were relieved and then promptly turned to other matters. Unfortunately, the reaction among those who favor assisted suicide was far different. They looked at what had happened, saw it as a temporary setback, regrouped, and kept on working.

This pattern has been repeated over and over again in similar situations. Those who seek to legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide are relentless in the pursuit of their goal. They have a multi-pronged strategy that is coupled with savvy public relations as they attack laws banning both practices.

Oregon has been called the “Poster State” for a law permitting physician-assisted suicide. Their law, called the “Death with Dignity Act,” went into effect in 1997. The Bush administration declared that the use of federally controlled drugs for something other than to cause a medical benefit such as pain control, was illegal. In other words, doctors should not be prescribing federally controlled substances to cause the death of a patient as that was not traditionally seen as a valid “medical benefit.”

For an overview of the Directive issued by Attorney General John Ashcroft on November 6, 2001, stating that a doctor could lose his or her federal registration to prescribe controlled substances if the registration is used to prescribe federally controlled substances for assisted suicide, please click here.

This directive was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court and in January of 2006, in Gonzales v. Oregon, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state of Oregon.

According to Burch Balch, J.D., Director of the Robert Powell Center for Medical Ethics at the NRLC, “This sort of inventive line-drawing supports what many have long believed – that the “swing” Justices on the Court are perhaps more apt to render decisions that fit their policy preferences than those that logically and consistently apply the Constitution and laws. It points up once again how critically important are Supreme Court appointments.”

Balch continues, “However, contrary to some overblown media reports, the Court did not say the use of federally controlled drugs to assist suicide is a matter the Constitution requires be left to the states. On the contrary, the opinion said, ‘Even though regulation of health and safety is “primarily, and historically, a matter of local concern,” there is no question that the Federal Government can set uniform national standards in these areas.’”

In short, Congress could constitutionally amend the federal Controlled Substances Act so that the statute says explicitly what the Bush Administration had believed it said implicitly.

To read the National Right to Life updated response to the ruling in Gonzales v. Oregon, please click here.

Citizens of the state of Rhode Island enjoy the protection of a ban on assisted suicide. Click here to view the wording of the ban.

According to the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, “Although the terms ‘euthanasia’ and ‘assisted suicide’ are often used interchangeably, they are not the same. One way to distinguish them is to look at the last act – the act without which an intended death would not occur. For example, if an intravenous needle has been inserted into a patient’s vein so that a lethal drug dose will flow through upon the flip of a switch, triggering the switch is the last act. If the patient activates the switch, assisted suicide occurs. If the doctor activates the switch, euthanasia takes place.”

To see a comprehensive and detailed history of the Right to Die movement, click here.

Additional resources:

The International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide:

The National Right to Life Committee site on Euthanasia:

The National Catholic Bioethics Center:

The U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: