Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Suicide and Narrow Social Agendas

Jack Hanke


November 9, 2012

By Jack Hanke

This article was originally published on, a new online journal of the Center for Public Justice dedicated to engaging young Christian thinkers in a conversation on what it means to do politics. 

Over the past few decades, questions of abortion and homosexuality have increasingly dominated the public debate on “social issues” and “moral values.” Occasionally, other issues manage to receive equal attention—the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) contraceptive mandate, for instance, created quite a fracas last year—but inevitably the two most controversial subjects in social policy will reassert themselves. It’s beginning to look as if non-economic or security issues need to involve sex, or at least its consequences, in order to capture the attention of the general public.

This is not to say that issues such as abortion and homosexuality are unimportant. On the contrary, they have rarely been more so. But there is also no reason why either of them should monopolize the national conversation.

This lack of breadth in the public discourse is especially unfortunate in my home state of Massachusetts. With Question 2 on the ballot last week, Massachusetts voters had the opportunity to decide the future of the world’s attitude towards physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill by choosing to decriminalize the practice.

The measure was struck down on Tuesday, with 51 percent of voters in opposition. However, the fact that Question 2 was on the ballot at all would have been unthinkable 20 years ago, when assisted suicide was illegal everywhere outside Germany and Switzerland and a near-global consensus existed that the practice violated human rights. Yet since Oregon decriminalized physician-assisted suicide with the Death With Dignity Act in 1994, the “Right to Die” movement has built considerable global momentum. Between 1997 and 2009 legislatures and courts have similarly endorsed physician-assisted suicide in Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Colombia, as well as the states of Washington and Montana. The global consensus on the relationship between the medical profession and the “sanctity of life,” such as it was, has vanished.

In the future, an assisted suicide law in Massachusetts would be a game-changer. Massachusetts is a leader in health care policy. Medical technology developed by researchers at Tufts, MIT and Harvard set the standard for the rest of the planet, and wealthy citizens from around the world flock to Boston to receive treatment, including Osama Bin Laden’s sister, whose death in Massachusetts General Hospital enabled doctors to determine bin Laden’s identity after the Abbottabad raid. If passed, the law would be enormously influential, in the same way that “Romneycare” proved enormously influential in the precedent it set for the Affordable Care Act.

Few would argue that the issue of assisted suicide for the terminally ill is of little importance. The terminally ill suffer terribly in their last days, and many think it unconscionable and unjust to force them to go through so much pain. Others argue that doctors must be responsible for protecting life at all times and that any form of legal assisted suicide sets a dangerous precedent that will lead to a more widespread and dangerous norm of euthanasia. They also fear that some patients will be coerced into premature death by impatient families who are tired of paying their medical bills.

The issue also takes on a religious component. Opponents of assisted suicide often claim that God (and, perhaps, the justice system) alone has the power to take life, and that nobody has the right to bring about his or her own death. But using this argument as a legal rationale is controversial. Many believe that in a pluralist state with no official state religion, religious beliefs should not form the basis for any law. Even if God has forbidden mankind from ending life early, it is argued, enshrining His will in state law solely because it is His will cannot fly in a nation that prohibits establishments of religion.

Whoever is right, the debate is undeniably of supreme importance. At stake are quantities and qualities of human lives, First Amendment principles and the will of God Himself. It is time for us to broaden the scope of our political discourse. When we discuss social issues—abortion and gay marriage are hardly insignificant matters—we cannot stop at the glowing hot-button questions.

Though Question 2 did not pass this election cycle in Massachusetts, the issue of assisted suicide will likely appear on the radar of other state legislatures. (The Supreme Court has decreed the matter a state issue.) Voters will likely be forced to choose which candidates to vote for—pro-assisted suicide candidates or those who oppose the practice—when the question becomes salient in their own state. Those who choose to become one-issue voters, or voters who focus exclusively on a narrow field of issues and ignore new and emerging questions, are failing to give due thought to the full consequences of their vote for their fellow Americans—including, all too often, the ones who lie at the brink of death. 

—Jack Hanke is a sophomore at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”