PERSPECTIVE ON THE RIGHT TO DIE : For Whom Do Ethicists Speak? : Ordinary people have quit wringing their hands. Why are the ‘professionals’ so far behind?


You must have noticed in the newspapers and on television that we have bred a new profession--the ethicist. Everywhere they make sweeping judgments about the quality of our lives, advise us how we ought to think, and their favorite phrase is, “It’s not good public policy.”

Hospitals often employ them to help doctors with difficult moral decisions. That’s not a bad idea as far as it goes, but through their volumes of learned papers and now the media, these ethicists are attempting to become the arbiters of our social values.

They are born out of various branches of academia. They are not quite up to calling themselves philosophers or moralists, perhaps for lack of the courage of their convictions. Ethicist is a title that anyone can take; it’s the proliferating, trendy profession of the 1990s.

Let be me frank: I have a vested interest here. The bulk of this nation’s scores of so-called ethicists are against euthanasia, which I support. The basis of their opposition appears to lie in ancient history (the Hippocratic Oath, for instance) and an ingrained fear of breaking tradition.


Reformers they are not. While they come over on television as seemingly independent voices, their salaries are invariably paid by institutions that reflexively support the status quo.

Their favorite catch-phrase is that euthanasia “would not be good public policy,” but I’ve caught a few out by asking what they will want when they face their own terminal illnesses.

These junior philosophers, from my observation as executive director of a large patients’ rights organization, seem to cut little ice with the general public. Ethicists offer warnings and theories-- never answers.

What the public is looking for after two decades of debate on the right-to-die issue is solutions. The medical Establishment has let the people down by keeping its eyes fixed on the ethics of Greece 2,000 years ago, ethics that were appropriate for the age.

Our legislators are so intimidated by the right-to-life movement that they will not confront reform of laws governing assistance in dying. As courts that struggle with the cases of those accused of aiding compassionate death keep reminding lawmakers, they bear the onus for reform.

So, here again, the public is taking the law into its own hands. Initiative 119 in Washington state, on the ballot Nov. 5, will decide whether the voters want lawful physician-assisted suicide for the dying. This is the first such widespread test of public opinion.


This fall, a group called Californians Against Human Suffering will collect signatures to qualify a similar state initiative. Opinion polls indicate likely victory in both states.

I haven’t seen one ethicist, one of these instant philosophers, come out firmly on the side of these initiatives, an indicator of their ivory-towered separation from public opinion. Instead they indulge in sweeping statements about no doctor wanting the option of being able to administer voluntary euthanasia. In fact, quite a few doctors will welcome the freedom from risk of prosecution that reform of the law would bring.

Instead of pontificating from TV studios, ethicists should be doing field research in hospitals and nursing homes and among the people. Those few ethicists who already favor reform should speak out more boldly before their newborn profession becomes known as the mouthpiece of the status quo.