Ashcroft need not
save us from ourselves
by ADAM TANOUS
faced with our mortality, with the precarious and fickle nature of life,
we find our humanity.
General John Ashcroft would do well to focus his time and energies on
figuring out who is sending anthrax around the U.S. mail system. It is
more than a little disturbing that just last week, a senior official for
the FBI testified before a Senate subcommittee that the agency had
"no idea" where the anthrax came from or who had access to it.
even more distressing is that while the anthrax investigation has stalled
out, Ashcroft has decided to foist himself into the physician-assisted
suicide debate. Suddenly, this conservative, ostensibly a believer in a
small federal government and a supporter of statesí rights, feels it is
his prerogative to single handedly strike down Oregonís Death With
Dignity Act, state legislation that the Oregon electorate voted into law
by a margin of 6 to 4. The law has been in place since 1997.
On Nov. 6,
Ashcroft effectively blocked the law when he signed a directive
authorizing federal agents to identify and punish doctors who prescribe
lethal drugs to terminally ill patients. Specifically, he asked the DEA to
revoke drug licenses of doctors who help patients commit suicide.
It is hard
to know what prompted the Attorney General to suddenly believe his sense
of right and wrong to be more valid than that of the 3.4 million Oregon
residents. What is clear is that his decision is far from a benign one.
the epitome of hypocrisy to trust in local decision making only when it
happens to jibe with a particular political platform, in this case that of
the far right faction of the Republican Party. Granted, that as a former
Republican senator from Missouri, Ashcroft often held that official
sanction of suicide is immoral. Still, what seems immoral here is when
Ashcroft, in essence, tells victims of ALS (Lou Gehrigís disease) or
someone riddled with a painful cancer that they can just put up with their
misery as long as he is calling the shots. He presumes that, like he,
everyone believes it is a sin against God to commit suicide, regardless of
the situation. While he is entitled to whatever religious beliefs he may
have, I donít think he is entitled to decide for all of the people of
Oregon what constitutes sin.
It is not
as if the average Oregonian was deciding what level of arsenic to allow in
his or her drinking water. Most of the electorate has a limited ability to
make an informed scientific and medical decision on such a subject. When
to live, when to die, what is compassion, what is the balance between a
living hell and living with some semblance of dignity and joy; These are
personal decisions that only individuals are equipped to make.
Ashcroft directive is a curious move, especially at this time. It seems
indicative of the trend of the conservative base to have a shifting
standard for what government can and should do for its people.
government traditionally addresses what the states or the market system
fail to address, what are commonly referred to as externalities. Take
pollution, for example. There is no economic incentive for private
industry, say oil companies, to reduce the pollution discharged from
plants. So the federal government steps in and enforces laws that will
enhance the public good, in general.
security is another case and point. The private market system does not
ensure safe skies, because private firms have every incentive in the world
to reduce their costsóand therefore hire the lowest-cost, least-trained
people they can. Free market conservatives will say that the companies
that donít provide the best serviceónamely air-tight securityówill
lose the contracts. Air travel consumers, however, cannot simply switch
brands and, therefore, adjust the market. Perhaps supply and demand would
get sorted out in the long run, but, in the mean time, how many hijackings
will occur before that company is replaced?
other cases where supply and demand curves donít function properly, such
as when real costs are not accurately accounted for. Actions by one entity
can profoundly affect others. If Idaho decided to dump sewage into the
Salmon River as it flows through Idaho, people in Oregon and Washington
would feel the effects. Someone other than the spender of the
"money" pays the "cost," in this case, pollution
costs: damage to fisheries and tourism, among others. It is the
misappropriation of costs that causes the market system to fail.
Ashcroft fails to recognize is that morality, or immorality in his view,
does not flow downstream. Moral decisions are, in general, case specific.
The moral decisions Oregon residents make about their own lives and deaths
have no bearing whatsoever on those people living in Idaho, Washington,
California or anywhere else. Decisions of morality are exactly the kind of
decisions that should be made locally. Decisions to live or die with
terminal conditions have effects that ripple out only as far as the family
Mr. Ashcroft spend 24 hours a day for perhaps two weeks with someone who
has one of these horrendous, terminal diseases. I think what heíll find
is what another politician, Rudolph Guiliani, seems to have discovered
when he faced prostate cancer: When faced with our mortality, with the
precarious and fickle nature of life, we find our humanity. We learn some
humility while clinging to the precipice of tragedy. We dare not assume to
know what is right for someone else. All of those sweeping and principled
decisions that government tries to hold before us as the way to salvation
mean nothing. They are but snippets of sound and fury floating about on
the wind. They donít come to bear on the moral decisions an individual
makes before his or her god, whether it be Christian, Jew, Muslim,
Buddhist, pagan or just the great, blue sky above.