Euthanasia has been making a comeback in recent months, bubbling up again and again in little snippets in the news. There is a natural tide in certain issues that has them wash up to this high-water mark or that, before sliding back down, and the public agitation for physician-assisted suicide made its highest reach in the 1990s¯when Jack Kevorkian seemed to be in the news almost every day, and Oregon had pushed ahead with its attempt to legalize the procedure, and the Supreme Court was hearing arguments in Washington v. Gluckberg and Vacco v. Quill , the cases that promised to be the Roe v. Wade of euthanasia.
In the end, the Supreme Court unanimously refused to declare a fundamental right to euthanize, and the issue faded from the front pages of the nation’s newspapers¯which suggests something about Roe v. Wade that isn’t noted enough: When the Supreme Court stepped into the debate about abortion in 1973, the pro-abortion movement was at one of its high tides.
Actually, as Russell Hittinger has noted , the tide may have already turned by that point, with states like Michigan and even New York beginning to retreat from an embrace of abortion. Still, agitation for the legality of at least a few abortions was great, and the Supreme Court somehow imagined as an inevitable swell what was, in fact, only a rising and falling tide. Indeed Justice Harry Blackmun, the author of Roe , admitted later that he thought the Court was only a few years in front of the culture’s general acceptance of abortion. In essence, Roe took an early 1970s high-water mark of one side in a public debate and supposed that the pressures that had brought the tide to that point would only increase. Thirty years later, the tides are still rising and falling¯and over the last decade, their trend has been further and further from public acceptance of a fundamental right to abortion.
Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide could have followed the same path in 1997. They probably should have, if legal logic were the sole factor. Out in California, the Ninth Circuit Court declared a fundamental right to euthanasia in Washington v. Gluckberg , and the argument’s reliance on the dicta of such abortion-confirming cases as Casey v. Planned Parenthood seemed quite persuasive. But the Supreme Court¯inconsistently but fortunately¯refused to go along, and, sure enough, the political tide ebbed again.
In the years since, it’s risen and fallen, though even in the case of Terri Schiavo, never quite attaining the public visibility it reached in 1997. Maybe some reaction against the attempt to save Schiavo was inevitable, but if you watch as the news cycles roll past, you can see it building again here and there.
Wesley J. Smith has been relentlessly collecting these stories, and you can discern their pattern on his blog , Secondhand Smoke . Much of the latest news comes from Europe: Doctors in England want to terminate a child with spinal muscular atrophy , despite the parents’ desire to care for him, while Holland has recently begun to allow euthanizing of babies , and euthanasia deaths are on a rapid rise in Belgium .
But here and there, you can feel euthanasia sliding back into public debate here in the United States, as well. When, in January, the Supreme Court ruled against federal sanctions against doctors in Oregon’s euthanasia program, the media reports generally signaled that the issue would be coming back. The American Medical Association’s latest " Declaration of Professional Responsibility " has replaced crucial protections and made easy a doctor’s participation in euthanasia.
At some point in the next few years, I expect, we will see another solid, national push for legalized euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. Some poster child will be selected¯a sort of counter-Terri Schiavo¯and the better-off-dead crowd will get into full swing. I don’t think it will come quite as close to success as it came in 1997, but it may. Still, the Supreme Court’s refusal to establish a right to euthanasia in Washington v. Gluckberg leaves the matter in the political realm, where the tides really do rise and fall.
There’s a model here for what might have happened with abortion. I wonder how far the abortion advocates would have advanced, beyond the point where euthanasia is now, if Roe had not been imposed on the nation.
In addition to which :
In the April issue of F IRST T HINGS , two seminary professors explain why the question of homosexuality and the priesthood goes far beyond concerns about sex abuse, as important as those concerns are. Father Guy Mansini of St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana and Lawrence Welch of Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis write: “There are serious implications to the attempt by some commentators to interpret the recent instruction [from Rome] as being concerned primarily with self-definition. There are implications for the morality of homosexual acts. There are implications for the psycho-physico-spiritual unity of man. There are implications for the theology of holy orders. And there are implications for marriage. All these implications are contrary to the established, universal, and constant teaching and practice of the Church.” Isn’t it time for you to become a subscriber to F IRST T HINGS ?
Some of you have been very patient in waiting. There was confusion about the publication date of Father Neuhaus’ new book, Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth . Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School says of Catholic Matters :
"The author of The Catholic Moment has done it again. From its opening meditation on the death of the Pope that Neuhaus was one of the first to call ‘the Great,’ to the closing notes on the conclave that elected Benedict XVI, this beguiling book brings the reader into conversation on the current state of the Church with one of the great Catholic thinkers of our time. No one is better than Father Neuhaus at reminding us why, even in times of confusion and controversy, it’s a joy to be Catholic!"
The book can be ordered from Amazon here .