Death With Dignity Highlights the Dying Art of Substantive Politics

Of the hundreds of legislative committee meetings I’ve sat through the last twenty years, Tuesday’s meeting of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee was one of just a handful that I wished people could have watched. At issue was legislation that would authorize a physician to prescribe a lethal dose of medication to a terminally ill person. I hope I can do justice in describing what I observed.

First, the hearing itself was done correctly. To take time to really study an issue is increasingly rare, as it seems the goal during our recent legislative sessions has been speed—to see how fast you can go and fix any mistakes next year. Pace seems to be increasingly more important than process.

Passing a flawed bill that will bring about the death of another human being is not something to hurriedly “study,” pass, and then “fix” later. Somebody’s death may be the reason you realize the bill needs fixing.

Second, I observed a civility that is increasingly lacking in politics. John Jay Hooker, the citizen whose rapidly debilitating cancer prompted him to push for this legislation, was there to speak. Mr. Hooker is a Democrat, in fact, a former candidate for Governor favored to win election. He lost to Winfield Dunn, who was sitting in the room.

Here former political rivals were together, not because they necessarily agreed with one another on the issue (Mr. Hooker said Mr. Dunn’s presence wasn’t an indication of political support), but because friendship transcended whatever differences they may have had or still have politically. It was a touching thing to see.

Third, I observed testimony that bore an uncommon weightiness. It was more substantive than political. The issue, not the person, was attacked. It was fitting of a bill that raises profound questions relative to what it means to be human, how we determine ethical questions, and even the meaning of the rule of law.

For example, comments about how we’d put our animals out of their suffering raised the issue of whether man is nothing more than an animal. Though it was not explored, the comparison should force us to ask whether man is nothing more than an animal or is a spiritual being unlike an animal. If they are different, then the comparison is emotionally appealing but theologically and philosophically distinguishable. In fact, the comparison loses its persuasiveness.

As to ethics, the unspoken issue was how we know what is right in these situations. For the person who does not believe in supernatural revelation or at least the clarity of that revelation relative to this situation, is right and wrong determined by emotion and feeling or by our minds and reason? In these hard and unpleasant situations, it is easy for emotion to overrule the mind.

Last, whether intentionally or not, the physician from Oregon who testified in support of the bill raised the issue of the rule of law by stating plainly the real issue, which, to be honest, the other learned proponents of the bill largely skirted. The bill, he said, wasn’t about whether there was some right of self-determination, but whether one person had the right to have aid from a third person in taking his or her life. It was refreshing to hear his honest answer: no. Thus, the issue was whether to give legal immunity to a person who was essentially acting in concert with another to bring about death.

But this raises the question of whether the law can make right that which may not be right. For example, in a more clear-cut situation, the question would be whether murder is wrong only because the law says it’s wrong. Or to put it conversely, does a law authorizing murder make it right or only legal?

At issue is whether there is a law higher than man’s law by which man’s law can be deemed just or unjust. The belief that there is such a law was the real, original meaning of the rule of law. Today we’ve reduced its meaning to a question of whether the procedural rules for engagement were followed.

To see these kinds of issues being raised, even if not addressed fully or answered, in a politically civil and deliberate way was a refreshing change of pace.

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David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

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