WHATEVER ONE thinks of physician-assisted suicide, last week's vote by the House to ban the practice nationally ought to be troubling. The issue of assisted suicide is an example of a policy area that should be left to states to decide according to their own democratic processes. Ironically, the Republican House that passed this bill is one that professes deference to the states. Yet this provision, a part of a bill generally designed to promote pain relief in terminal patients, was passed in clear reaction to a decision by Oregon to legalize -- in tightly limited fashion -- assisted suicide for dying patients. One doesn't have to be a supporter of assisted suicide, about which we have reservations, to wonder why Congress should be so eager to second-guess the balancing act that Oregon has attempted.
The federal government may have interests in right-to-die issues at the margins. After all, uncontrolled physician-assisted suicide can raise troubling questions about the meaning of true patient consent and can, as a consequence, push up against federally protected rights. But this is a largely theoretical concern. At its core, the question of whether a terminally ill patient might choose death rather than protracted suffering is one that different populations may legitimately approach differently and in which the federal interest is minimal. The essence of federalism is to refrain from national legislation on such subjects.
But federalism is only meaningful if members of Congress exercise restraint even when they disagree with state policies. To argue that states should be free to experiment with policy only when their experiments reflect a national democratic consensus -- rather than the preferences of their own populations -- is really to argue that the states themselves are only nominally more than administrative districts of a national government. It is hard to reconcile legislation such as this with the rhetoric of devolution and block grants.
The Supreme Court declined -- rightly in our view -- to constitutionalize a right to die in 1997. This was correct not only as a matter of constitutional law but also as a matter of federal policy. Congress similarly should stay its hand in nationalizing a problem behind which lie a set of ethical issues that communities may wish to handle differently.