Just a couple of weeks ago, the British Columbia Supreme Court fired the latest volley in North America’s long and dramatic debate about physician-assisted suicide. In a 395-page ruling, Justice Lynn Smith claimed that the Canadian constitution didn’t prevent doctors from aiding suffering patients who wished to end their lives — a position that kicked up attention south of the border as well.
During the past two decades, similar contested rulings have opened the way for physician-assisted death in the United States. Despite strong opposition from religious organizations and groups representing handicapped and disabled people, Oregon and Washington state legalized physician-assisted suicide in 1997 and 2008, respectively. In fact, since 1997, more than 900 people in Oregon have received a prescription to commit suicide, while in Washington, nearly 300 people have requested a similar death in the last four years.
Assisted suicide, to put it mildly, is a controversial subject — and one that continues to be fought over vociferously by both right-to-die activists and religious groups. But according to Howard Ball, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Vermont, the legalization of physician-assisted death is a gesture of human compassion. As he details in his new book, “At Liberty to Die: The Battle for Death With Dignity in America,” the issue goes to the heart of bigger questions about the American soul — from the meaning of personal liberty to the importance of constitutional law.
Salon spoke to Ball over the phone about the evolution of death, Jack Kevorkian and the right-to-die movement’s legal hopes.