Death, Suicide, Morality and the Law

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - In 1997 the Supreme Court ruled in Washington v. Glucksberg and Quill v. Vacco that there is no constitutional right to physician-assisted suicide. In 2006 in turn it held in Gonzales v. Oregon that the U.S. attorney general could not use the Federal Controlled Substances Act to negate the Oregon Death with Dignity Act, which authorizes physicians to prescribe drugs that would allow terminally ill patients to end their lives.

Historian, professor and writer Melvin I. Urofsky will examine these cases and others as he unravels the moral and legal debate surrounding physician-assisted suicide and the right to die, differentiating the concepts of discontinuation of medical treatment, assisted suicide and active euthanasia from each other during his lecture, “Do Go Gentle into That Good Night: Thoughts on Death, Suicide, Morality and the Law.”

His lecture will be at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 7, in the University of Arkansas School of Law E. J. Ball Courtroom. It is being sponsored by the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Law.

Urofsky, who holds both a law degree and a doctorate in history, believes that when an assisted suicide is treated merely as a legal question, the real importance of the issue is undermined. For patients with AIDS, cancer or other debilitating illnesses, for example, physician-assisted suicide can be an expression of personal autonomy, he writes in his book, Lethal Judgments: Assisted Suicide and the American Law.

As modern medicine finds new ways to prolong life, more and more people may seek to exercise their right to die, and it’s important for students of law and those interested in legal theory to understand this highly complex decision: whether to live or die.

Urofsky’s research and expertise don’t end with physician-assisted suicide, however. An expert in constitutional law and history, Urofsky combines the two with what professor of law Mark Killenbeck calls a “special interest in bioethical issues,” delving into questions such as whether the government will one day have to regulate genetically altered children or cloning or whether men and women on death row have the right to terminate their appeals.

“For some,” he writes in “A Right to Die: Termination of Appeal for Condemned Prisoners,” the “darkest fear is not execution, but the prospect of living out their natural years incarcerated in a six-by-nine cell. . They want to hear the executioner’s song.”

Killenbeck called Urofsky “one of the nation’s leading historians” and said he has also done important work in other areas such as campaign finance reform.

“We are honored to have such a notable historian here at the University of Arkansas,” said Dean Cyndi Nance of the School of Law.

Urofsky is professor of law and public policy in the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University and emeritus professor since 2003 in the department of history. He has authored or edited more than 40 books and 100 articles, including a four-volume edition of the letters of Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, books on the American Jewish experience, A March of Liberty: A Constitutional History of the United States and Money and Speech: The Supreme Court and Campaign Finance Reform.

In September 2005, he spoke about the history of the Supreme Court at the news briefing prior to the confirmation hearing of Justice John G. Roberts at the Foreign Press Center in Washington, D.C.

“There's no question that, as far as constitutional courts go,” Urofsky said, “the United States Supreme Court is the most powerful constitutional court in just about any country. We don't go to the streets. We don't riot. We don't have palace coups; we litigate. We have more lawyers per square foot and per head than any other country in the world.”

He is currently working on a biography of Justice Brandeis, which is funded by the Loeb Foundation and National Endowment for the Humanities Senior Fellowship.

This lecture, part of the Hartman Hotz Lectures in Law and Liberal Arts, will be held in the E. J. Ball Courtroom located in the Robert A. Leflar Law Center on the corner of Maple Street and Garland Avenue. It is free and open to the public. Guests may park in the Arkansas Union parking garage off Stadium Drive.

The University of Arkansas Hartman Hotz Lectures in Law and Liberal Arts were established by Dr. and Mrs. Palmer Hotz of Foster City, Calif., to honor the memory of his brother, Hartman Hotz.

Hartman Hotz was a graduate in history from the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. After graduating from Yale University Law School, he joined the faculty of the University of Arkansas School of Law, where he made significant contributions to the study of law.

Many distinguished speakers have participated in this lecture series, among them Chief Justice Warren Burger, G. Edward White, Shirley Abbott, Daisy Bates, Thomas Grisso, George Fletcher and George McGovern.

To hear Professor Urofsky’s Real Audio briefing of Justice Roberts’ confirmation hearing, go to





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