In 2006, the year the Supreme Court ruled that doctors in Oregon should be allowed to help terminally ill patients end their lives, US Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch published a book called The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia.
After carefully weighing the arguments on both sides, Gorsuch argued against the practice—a position, he wrote, “premised on the idea that all human beings are intrinsically valuable and the intentional taking of human life by private persons is always wrong.”
This position puts him at odds with a majority of Americans. More than two-thirds believe physician-aided suicide should be legal for the terminally ill, a number that has held fairly steady for decades. (The terms in Gorsuch’s title aren’t interchangeable. Euthanasia is when a doctor deliberately kills a patient—for example, by administering a fatal injection. Physician-assisted suicide is when a doctor indirectly helps a patient kill him- or herself, like writing a prescription for a lethal drug a patient will take later.)
Six US states—Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado, Montana, and Vermont—currently allow physician-aided suicide. Another 19 are considering similar laws this year.
“It is truly troubling to have someone on the court, or potentially on the court, going in so entrenched against this position,” said Peg Sandeen, executive director of the Death With Dignity National Center.
While Gorsuch may be personally opposed to assisted suicide, he is also a strict constructionist more likely convinced by the letter of the law than the reasoning behind it.
The Oregon case in 2006 was the last time the Supreme Court weighed in on assisted suicide. When questioned on the subject during his 10th Circuit confirmation hearings that year, Gorsuch wrote that he would rule on the side of legal precedent above personal convictions.
He may not have the chance any time soon. No existing assisted suicide cases appear headed for the Supreme Court. It’s a state issue, and the rightward shift of Congress and statehouses could be much more important in the future of physician-assisted dying than the makeup of the Supreme Court bench. Two members of Congress are trying to block a Washington, DC statute permitting assisted dying in the capital.
“The future of physician aid in dying doesn’t depend on the Supreme Court but on the legislative branch,” said Valerie Vollmar, a Willamette University law professor. “With the sea change in Washington, however, congressional efforts to repudiate the practice are likely to grow. These efforts could succeed despite favorable public opinion.”