With Donald Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to fill the open seat on the Supreme Court vacated by Antonin Scalia’s death, questions of the judge’s position on a number of issues from gay rights to healthcare to abortion have been mostly left to speculation.
But one position Gorsuch has been consistently candid in addressing is his opposition to physician-assisted death and euthanasia. His vehement disapproval of the practice (legal in 6 U.S. states and the District of Columbia) manifested in the 2016 book he authored entitled The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia. In short synopsis: Gorsuch equates physician-assisted death and euthanasia with “taking of human life” and opposes it on the grounds that all human life is fundamentally valuable and it’s always wrong to intentionally kill.
This type of paternalistic imposition of religious values is oppressive of human choice and autonomy and has no place being legislated in a society that otherwise appears to value individual liberty above all else. Federal opposition to euthanasia violates the bioethical principles of respect for autonomy, justice, and beneficence—the duty to do good.
It is wrong to deny a mentally competent person the right to safely end their life should they choose to do so. By outlawing physician-assisted death, suicide often becomes physically dangerous and puts the wellbeing of others at risk, such as suicide by cop, automobile, firearm, or jumping. Not to mention, those exposed to non-physician suicides are likely to suffer significant psychological trauma as well.
When might a mentally competent person seek euthanasia? Take the case of Dax Cowart, a former Air Force pilot who was severely burned and lost sight in both his eyes following a natural gas explosion in 1973. While his father died in the blast, Cowart survived the ambulance ride to the hospital despite his attempts at refusing treatment knowing the debilitating extent of his injuries. While being held in the hospital, Cowart continued to plead with doctors to let him die even as they “forcibly” administered treatments that he likened to “being skinned alive” for ten months. This is a clear violation of the principle of beneficence, the duty to do good and perhaps the principle of nonmaleficence, the duty to do no harm.
During the course of these ten months, he repeatedly attempted to commit suicide on his own, including trying to jump out of the hospital window to end his suffering. Following his eventual release from the hospital, he chronicled his story in a video entitled “Please Let Me Die” and went on to earn a law degree, which he uses to advocate for the patient rights he was denied.
A ban on euthanasia also violates the bioethical principles of justice, the fair distribution of resources and treatment. When patients have clearly expressed preferences via advance directives that they don’t wish to be artificially sustained in life while incapacitated, providers who continue treatment despite these wishes divert precious financial and medical resources that could be used to treat those who actually do want to be treated and kept alive.
Judge Gorsuch may passionately believe that life is always worth sustaining, but for patients who are forced to maintain an existence of suffering and pain, his stonewall opposition is an obstruction to relief and a violation of autonomy, liberty, and patient rights.