Scalia, States Rights, and "Legitimate Medical Procedures"
Alonzo Fyfe printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Jan 23, 2006 at 11:59:56 AM EST
Scalia is not the "states rights" form of conservative that some people market him as being.

As can be shown from his opinion in Gonzales vs. Oregon, his willingness to overturn Oregon's "Death with Dignity" law, he sees the federal government as having the power to force a single moral code across the whole country -- and that moral code is the religious code he adheres to.

Scalia, States Rights, and "Legitimate Medical Procedures"

I have spent the last week mulling over Justice Scalia's dissent on the case of Ashcroft vs. Oregon and applied his remarks to the issue of abortion, with interesting results.

Ashcroft vs. Oregon (later, Gonzales vs. Oregon) is the case in which the Courts let stand an Oregon "death with dignity" law. This law allows terminally ill patients with less than 6 months to live, who jump through a long line of hoops, to obtain a lethal dose of medication so that they can end their own lives. Its purpose is to allow patients to avoid a period of extreme pain and debilitation before they die.

I do believe that the following interpretation of events is accurate.

Ashcroft is a religious zealot who believes that God has given him an infallible knowledge of right and wrong, that assisted suicide is wrong, and that he has a moral obligation to put an end to it. Furthermore, he will advance any interpretation of the law that gives him the power to impose his beliefs on the whole country.

The three justices who joined in this dissent, Scalia, Thomas, and Chief Justice Roberts, share the same affection for theocratic government. They also believe that their job is to impose their religious beliefs on the nation. For every case that comes before them, they begin with the assumption that their biblical beliefs are without error, and that the only interpretation of the law that "works" is the interpretation that would makes their religious beliefs the law of the land.

They claim to be strict constructionists. Yet, the simple evidence against this fact rests in how infrequently any of them ever reach a conclusion they do not like. This is proof enough that the justice starts by determining what he wants the conclusion to be and, from there, goes on to construct an argument that supports that conclusion.

On this assisted suicide case, there is no doubt that all three justices joining the dissent want it to be the case that assisted suicide is illegal. If they had lived in Oregon, they would have voted against the law.

This goes to the heart of Scalia's dissent. In it he writes, "If the term 'legitimate medical practice' has any meaning, it surely excludes the prescription of drugs to produce death."

Here, Scalia is accusing citizens of Oregon who voted in favor of the law, not with having a difference of opinion about right and wrong, but with being unable to speak English. They -- the citizens of Oregon -- do not know what the phrase 'legitimate medical practice' means, and he is going to set them straight.

Scalia also wrote, "From an early time in our national history, the Federal Government has used its enumerated powers...for the purpose of protecting public morality." Here, his argument is that the people of Oregon are suffering from a corruption in their moral character. It is up to the federal government to impose morality on them, whether they like it or not.

To see how well this reasoning works, let us apply it to the issue of abortion. Let us say that Ashcroft had wished to make abortion illegal. According to Scalia's decision, he could do so by offering an interpretive declaration that abortion is not a 'legitimate medical procedure'.

Scalia, and the two Justices who sided with him (probably 3 justices, after Alito is confirmed), would then write that 'If the term 'legitimate medical practice' means anything, it surely excludes the murder of an unborn person," and then use the federal government's authority to declare that no state may legalize abortion.

With respect to assisted suicide, Ashcroft used a prescription drug law. I do not know what laws would be available to use against the practice of abortion. However, given the tendency of members of the religious right to interpret the laws however they like (including laws against torture, spying on Americans, arrest and imprisonment without trial, etc.), there is reason to expect some ultra-religious attorney general to dictate to the country that abortion is an "illegitimate medical practice."

All of this is also consistent with a judicial philosophy that puts all power in the hands of the President, allowing him (or his secretaries) to rewrite legislation according to their will, thereby rendering the legislative branch of government impotent and irrelevant when it comes to making law.

So, we see in this decision a legal foundation for setting up a theocratic federalism centered around the Executive Branch of government. Government officials have a power to rewrite laws at will. In particular, this includes the power to give biblical interpretations to phrases such as "legitimate medical practice."

Alonzo Fyfe
The Atheist Ethicist




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