ASHINGTON — Two years before he became a circuit court judge, Neil Gorsuch finished a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Oxford in England. A byproduct of that pursuit, which began 13 years after he graduated from law school, was a book: “The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia.”
When he wrote it, he likely never imagined he’d be before the Senate, asked to defend his views as lawmakers considered his nomination to the Supreme Court.
This week, though, Gorsuch was asked to do just that when Senators Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked the judge to account for his earlier statements that there is never a justification to intentionally end someone’s life.
“I, in my life, have seen people die horrible deaths,” Feinstein told Gorsuch. “Family. Of cancer. When there was no hope. My father, begging me, ‘Stop this, Dianne. I’m dying.’”
“I’ll talk to you about what I wrote in the book,” the judge responded. “That’s fair.”
Gorsuch told Feinstein that he understood her point of view, but held firm in his opposition to medical procedures that intentionally lead to death.
“My heart goes out to you,” he replied. “I’ve been there with my dad — and others. And at some point, you want to be left alone. Enough with the poking and the prodding. I want to go home and die in my own bed in the arms of my family.”
Gorsuch said he agreed with the Supreme Court’s 1990 decision in Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health, which held that competent patients had the right to refuse lifesaving or life-prolonging medical treatment. He characterized the decision as the recognition of a common-law right to effectively “be free from assault and battery.”
Feinstein then asked Gorsuch whether he agreed with California’s End of Life Option Act, which provides patients with less than six months to live the option of requesting drugs for the purpose of ending their life.
As with many of the day’s issues, Gorsuch steered clear of taking a hard stance on the California law specifically.
Feinstein was an ardent supporter of the act as the California Legislature debated it in 2015. Her father, a surgeon, died in 1975 and had no legal means of pursuing a physician-assisted death in his final months.
“Anything necessary to alleviate pain would be appropriate and acceptable, even if it caused death,” Gorsuch told Feinstein, recalling his own father’s death. “Not intentionally, but knowingly. I drew a line between intent and knowingly. And I’ve been there. I’ve been there.”
Coons, who on Tuesday also pressed Gorsuch on the topic, called that distinction “an intriguing line” but declined to elaborate other than to cast doubt on Gorsuch’s broader stance.
“I respect that the book he wrote that I was questioning [him] about, he wrote as a personal opinion piece,” Coons, a graduate of Yale’s law and divinity schools, told STAT. “But I’m left with some serious questions about how it translates into his judicial philosophy.”
On Wednesday, Feinstein nodded and said “thank you” in an appreciative way after Gorsuch explained his point of view. The senator ceded the remainder of her allotted time to her colleagues.