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FIRST-PERSON: What happens when the majority is wrong?

McMINNVILLE, Ore. (BP)–In 1994, voters in the state of Oregon narrowly approved the first law in the United States allowing physician-assisted suicide. Three years later, an attempt to repeal the law was defeated at the ballot box. It is clear that the majority of voters in the Beaver State believe a person has a right to decide when his or her life should end.

In 1999, the Oregon legislature voted to expand the coverage of the state-sponsored health plan to include physician-assisted suicide. In the state of Oregon not only can a person end his or her life with a doctor’s help, but he or she also can have the government foot the bill for the “procedure.”

On Wednesday, April 17, U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones rejected an attempt by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to apply the Controlled Substance Act to Oregon doctors who use the physician-assisted suicide law to prescribe lethal doses of medication to those seeking to end their lives prematurely.

Ashcroft’s decision held that assisted suicide is not a legitimate medical procedure, threatening to revoke the licenses of physicians who prescribed deadly doses of drugs to patients. Judge Jones disagreed with the attorney general and his ruling allows assisted suicide in Oregon to continue unfettered.

The majority is elated, asserting it is a victory for individual rights as well as the democratic process. The voters of Oregon have expressed their will not once but twice: If a person wants to choose the time, place and circumstance of his or her death, what business is it of the government? We are told that society is not harmed by such a decision.

One question: What if the voters in Oregon are wrong and their populist view concerning physician-assisted suicide is not a victory for an individual’s right to die, but rather the next progression down the slippery slope toward forced euthanasia?

We must not too quickly forget the reality that occurred in Nazi Germany. In “Modern Fascism: The Liquidating of the Judeo-Christian Worldview,” Gene Edward Vieth Jr. reminds us, “The first official legalized ‘mercy killing’ [in Nazi Germany] was the result of an emotional case brought before the Fuhrer himself. A baby named Knauer was born blind, missing a leg and part of a hand, and evidently mentally retarded. The father begged permission for the child to be put out of his misery. Hitler himself investigated and granted permission. More petitions followed.”

Writing in “The Nazi Doctors,” Robert Jay Lifton points out, “Of the five identifiable steps by which the Nazis carried out the principle of ‘life unworthy of life,’ coercive sterilization was the first. There followed the killing of ‘impaired’ children in hospitals; and then the killing of ‘impaired adults,’ in centers especially equipped with carbon monoxide gas. This project was extended (in the same killing centers) to ‘impaired’ inmates of concentration and extermination camps and, finally to mass killings, mostly of Jews, in the extermination camps themselves.”

Those who favor physician-assisted suicide loudly declare, “No way infanticide and forced euthanasia will ever occur in the United States. We are too enlightened.” They accuse people like me of knee-jerk reactions and of trying to impose our puritanical morality on the enlightened majority. Well, to that charge I have two words in reply: Peter Singer. Singer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University. He espouses both infanticide and forced euthanasia. Singer, who is a radical utilitarian, believes that a life incapable of “full life” should not be prolonged. He holds that the good of society must be considered in determining whether a life is worth preserving.

Peter Singer is only one man. His views seem too radical for mainstream America. However, what if one man — as wrong as his views might be — over time is able influence a majority? What then?

In 1930, Germany embraced the Nazi Party. Shortly thereafter the leader of the party, Adolf Hitler, was appointed chancellor. On March 23, 1933, Hitler pressed the German cabinet to pass the Enabling Act that would result in him being named legal dictator — and the demise of democracy in Germany.

The Enabling Act involved altering the German Constitution, requiring passage by a two-thirds majority of the Cabinet. Hitler needed 31 non-Nazis to vote in favor of the act in order for him to become dictator.

One lone voice spoke in opposition to Hitler’s grab for power. Otto Wells, leader of the Social Democrats stood and took issue with the head of the Nazi Party. In the end, Wells’ voice was ignored and the Enabling Act passed. Hitler became the dictator because that was the desire of the majority. One man influenced a majority. The rest, as they say, is history. And history has proved the majority was wrong.

A majority of voters in Oregon approve of physician-assisted suicide. Thankfully, this view is still a minority in America. If this ever changes, and the majority embraces the view that life is disposable, we will all suffer.
Boggs, whose column appears in Baptist Press each week, is pastor of Valley Baptist Church, McMinnville, Ore.

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  • Kelly Boggs