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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2001 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of November 14 - 20, 2001

  Opinion Column

Ashcroft need not save us from ourselves

Commentary by ADAM TANOUS

When faced with our mortality, with the precarious and fickle nature of life, we find our humanity.

Attorney 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.

What is 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.

It seems 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.

This 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.

The federal 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.

Airport 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?

There are 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.

What 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 extends.

I suggest 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.


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.