In light of recent developments—the death of Jack Kevorkian, the indictment of late-term abortionist Kermit Gosnell, and the Republican campaign to defund Planned Parenthood —Ross Douthat has challenged me to consider some parallels between abortion and assisted suicide.
I accept. Let's look at Douthat's arguments.
1. Abortion is a model of unregulated killing. Douthat, responding to my previous comparison of abortion to assisted suicide, writes:
If the right to die really became "a lot like" the right to abortion in America, there would be Swiss-style thanatoriums in most American cities, the Hemlock Society would be a major lobbying group (boasting, no doubt, that most of its resources go to palliative care rather than assisted suicide), and Kermit Gosnell-style thanatists would prey on the elderly while the courts looked the other way.
That can't be true, because the courts didn't look away from Gosnell. He's facing trial on eight counts of murder: one for killing a patient and seven for killing born-alive babies, as alleged in the indictment. Abortion is regulated, starting with the line drawn at viability. Pro-lifers have long protested that cops and courts don't enforce this line. Gosnell's case proves otherwise.
2. Assisted suicide is tightly regulated. Why not abortion? Douthat asks:
If we treated abortion the way, say, Oregon treats assisted suicide, it would only be legally sanctioned in rare cases—involving, say, severe fetal deformity or a threat to the life of the mother—and even then it would have to be approved by two physicians and hedged around by waiting periods. That kind of regime would represent an enormous victory for pro-lifers, and it's obviously not something that Saletan would support. But it's arguably where his analogy points …
Here Douthat has a much stronger case. Assisted suicide laws show how abortion could be regulated much more strictly than it is. From my standpoint, assisted suicide deserves tighter regulation than abortion because a person is more than a fetus. On the other hand, you can argue that abortion deserves tighter regulation than assisted suicide because in assisted suicide, the victim's death is voluntary. But let's not overlook a third distinction: inertia and presumption. If you're 70 or 80 years old, and you ask for lethal drugs, you're proposing to end a life that until now you've chosen to live. You're changing your mind. By imposing a waiting period, we're asking whether you really want to overrule your prior will.
Abortion isn't like that. Generally speaking, a woman who wants an abortion didn't want to be pregnant in the first place. She isn't changing her mind. So there's no presumption of prior will that would justify a waiting period.
That distinction captures my intuitions. But I don't think it's a sufficient answer to Douthat. Maybe, in order to be consistent, I should withdraw my support for Oregon-like restrictions on assisted suicide. I'm uneasy with that step, for reasons Douthat articulated in his column on Kevorkian. But I might have to go there.