Privatized Liberty

America is on a one-way slide toward a culture of death. Last week, a federal judge ruled that the citizens of Washington may not outlaw doctor-assisted suicide. The judge struck down as unconstitutional a law that banned assisted suicide. After all, the judge argued, the U.S. Supreme Court has proclaimed a constitutional right to end life through abortion; hence there must also be a constitutional right to end life through suicide. The ruling came one day after a Michigan jury acquitted Jack Kevorkian of assisted suicide. In short, the pressure for legalized death is coming from two sides now: from the elites who sit on federal benches and from ordinary people who sit on juries. The most frightening thing is the logic behind this slide toward death. Legal reasoning took a sharp turn in the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision, in which the Supreme Court relegated life-and-death decisions to the strictly private arena. Listen to what the Court said: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning . . . of the mystery of human life." If the state were to set a public standard on abortion, the Court argued, it would infringe on citizens' right to make up their own minds on this "intimate and personal" choice. The federal judge who struck down Washington's law against assisted suicide quoted directly from the Casey ruling—arguing that suicide, like abortion, "involves the most intimate and personal choices a person may make." As Christians, our response ought to be that all this talk about intimate, personal choices is completely beside the point. Our courts and legal system are not concerned with private metaphysical beliefs; they are concerned with public justice. Christians, atheists, and New Agers may disagree over personal philosophy; yet we can all agree on standards of public justice and order—just as we can all agree to stop when the traffic signal is red. We may each have different moral reasons for stopping at the signal; yet we can still agree that such behavior promotes the public good. This is a crucial distinction if we are to maintain freedom of conscience while also maintaining public order. But it is precisely this distinction that the Casey ruling denied: It gave up any concept of the public good and transferred the most fundamental decisions about life and death to the purely private realm. In the words of Russell Hittinger of Catholic University, the Court granted citizens "a private franchise over matters of life and death." Yesterday that franchise covered abortion, today assisted suicide, and tomorrow—who knows? The Court has given up any notion that private behavior should be constrained by the public good. Yet by refusing to set a public standard, the courts are setting one by default. They are elevating the culture of death to a public ethic. This is a crucial time for Christians to educate first ourselves and then our neighbors on this dangerous shift in legal reasoning. Now that the Supreme Court has defined liberty in purely private terms, it may well be up to Christians to defend public justice.


Chuck Colson


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