For the week of March 31, 1999  thru April 6, 1999  

Exit strategy

Commentary by ADAM TANOUS 


Last week a jury convicted Jack Kevorkian of second degree murder for his participation in the death of Thomas Youk. It was the fifth, and probably final, time Kevorkian has been tried for assisting in the deaths of terminally ill patients.

Ironically, the story was almost overlooked as it came out on the eve of a massive and lethal NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo, one we are told will likely prevent wide-scale human suffering and death.

In past cases, Kevorkian has "assisted" in the suicides of his patients. This time around he actually delivered the injection that stopped Thomas Youk's heart. As most people know, the event was videotaped and later played on "60 Minutes" for all the world to witness. It was a grisly scene, and it outraged many people.

Maybe for fairness, "60 Minutes" should have also taped 24 hours of Thomas Youk’s life and played that in all of its excruciating detail. People's reaction to the broadcast and the issue at hand may have been decidedly different. Anyway, the appropriateness of showing the videotape is a whole other issue and hinges more on whether Mr. Youk gave permission to Kevorkian (which is hard to know) than on anything else.

I think that most people's immediate impression of Jack Kevorkian is that he is a nutcase, a weird guy with a perverse interest in death. There is, however, more to him than that. Certainly, charisma is not his strong suit. As Lloyd Bentsen might say, Kevorkian "...is no J.F.K."

With his gaunt face, sunken eyes, and slightly odd speech pattern, the man is undoubtedly a creepy fellow. Even his name has a certain morbid ring to it. And I don't think these facts are lost on Jack Kevorkian. As the drama plays out, it seems that he is exactly the right person to be forcing the issue. Death, chronic pain, crippling, terminal diseases are ugly to the core. Charisma and charm have no place here.

In his most recent trial, Kevorkian was basically forcing a confrontation between law and morality. I doubt that from a legal standpoint he had any illusions of winning. His only hope was that the jury would decide his fate on moral grounds, that is, what he did was compassionate. moral, and something any of the jurors might do in the same situation. The idea is that the moral rectitude of his actions preclude the existing law.

Legal scholars term this "jury nullification." It is, I think, precisely why Kevorkian chose to represent himself. He had no intention of finding some obscure refuge in the law. He wanted to point out the disparity between what he thinks is right or moral and the guidelines we live by in the law. Of course, a legal system cannot tolerate exceptions to its laws. So the jury, bound by law, did as it had to do.

Kevorkian does raise an interesting point here, because, fundamentally, our laws should reflect our moral prerogatives.

Laws, often written in broad terms, sometimes are too blunt to deal with the myriad subtleties and ambiguities of our lives. They are also slow to be written, and. therefore, lag behind the complex issues arising every day. Further, technology so often moves faster than moral and ethical resolve, pushing us into territory through which we don't have the tools to navigate.

I think this is exactly what Kevorkian was hoping for. He deserves a certain degree of respect for forcing society to face an issue it doesn't want to face, knowing full well he would likely spend the rest of his days in prison for it.

The battle over euthanasia won't be resolved until the legal and moral components are addressed by the society as a whole. The former boils down to what sort of safeguards to put in place.

Should someone wish to die, do we require one doctor, two doctors, three doctors to agree that the patient is terminally ill? Do we evaluate a patient's mental fitness to make such a decision? Over what sort of time scale do we permit the decision to be made? Do family members have any, say in the matter should the patient be unable to communicate? If a person is too weak to end his own life, will we allow someone else to actually perform the mechanics of the act? These are all legal specifics that need to be worked out, written into law, and voted on democratically.

The bigger issue has always been the moral question of whether we, as humans. have the right to take our own lives. A large contingent of this country believes fervently in the sanctity of life. This is the belief that only God gives and takes life. It is not our place to do so, because there is a divine plan we can never know. When it comes to human suffering, this is faith in the purest sense.

The sanctity of life seems all well and good until one actually witnesses someone die slowly, painfully, without dignity, and with no hope for a happy life.

When someone wants to die in that situation, it seems profoundly immoral to allow them to suffer. If we have the ability to help them find peace, aren’t we obligated to do so? Faith in an all-knowing God seems absurdly abstract when one is faced with a real person suffering so much they are begging to die. It really comes down to whether it is faith or mercy and grace we consider to be at the center of life.

We live in a country that was founded on self-determination. It is odd that we take that principle away at the end of life—a time when we are the weakest, the most vulnerable, and have so few options left.

As anyone who has witnessed a life come to a painful end knows, there is no decision more profound than the last one we make. Dying people face the uncertainty of death, guilt, the fear of further pain, legal ramifications for their families. It is a wrenching decision that is never arrived at easily. If one chooses to believe that God’s will need prevail, then so be it. But it seems wrong that society has the right to hold the individual to a faith he may not have or want.

As we learned last week in Yugoslavia, we have no moral problem with killing, maiming, and destroying people and things to prevent further death and suffering. By comparison, it doesn’t seem that Kevorkian is asking that much of us.

 

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