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The Jack Kevorkian Show Reaches A Climax.

By Jeff Smith

APRIL 26, 1999: 

Breaking rocks in the hot sun
I fought the law, and the law won.

I DON'T EXPECT to see video on the evening news of Jack Kevorkian making little ones out of big ones, but you can bet money that in the spirit of EdTV and The Truman Show, we'll be catching homely little glimpses of the Doctor of Death's new life behind bars.

Dr. Kevorkian, the champion of legalized euthanasia, has been given a 10-25 stretch for second-degree murder in the death of a Michigan man who was suffering from irreversible and terminal disease. The man was physically helpless and emotionally and intellectually committed to ending his suffering by ending his life. He was also determined to have Kevorkian assist his suicide, and that the process should be videotaped for broadcast on CBS's 60 Minutes. Which it was.

Which predictably brought the law down on Kevorkian. Again.

Which is what Kevorkian wanted. The good doctor has a long history of drawing attention to the helplessness of the terminally ill and the inhumanity of statutory law that prevents their ending their own lives, and in cases where they are incapable of halting their own suffering, of prohibiting anyone else--including qualified medical professionals--from assisting them. Kevorkian's established method for highlighting this medical/ethical/legal dilemma is to assist helpless victims in ending their lives. Over and over again this has put Kevorkian in legal jeopardy. He has been convicted of criminal misconduct in the past, but until now he has been vindicated on appeal.

This time it's a bit different.

This time he's been convicted of murder. This time he's been sentenced to a long stretch in prison. This time he's been denied bail while his lawyers appeal the conviction.

Because this time he did it all on coast-to-coast television, left no stone unturned, and essentially left himself no way out.

And this time it's hard to tell whether Kevorkian is surprised, disappointed or dismayed at the outcome.

He shouldn't be: this is what he asked for.

If I sound unsympathetic toward Dr. Kevorkian and the principles he is fighting for, I am not. I believe in the right of every one of us to die at the time and by the means of our choosing. I believe this extends beyond the plight of those with terminal illness, beyond those whom wasting disease has robbed of the means and ability to end their own lives. Laws that proscribe suicide or euthanasia are simply a codification of religious philosophy that has no place in a system of government that supposedly keeps church and state separate and makes no law regarding establishment of religion.

The religious and/or philosophical concept of the sanctity of life cannot support an absolutist approach. I see no sanctity in hopeless suffering. For that matter I see no sanctity in the lives of creatures who inflict pain, suffering and injustice on others. Our society persists in imposing capital punishment on certain classes of criminal, arguing that government has the right to commit homicide; and yet it argues the contradictory position that it is immoral and unlawful for a person who is sick and suffering and has no hope of relief, let alone cure, to escape the pain by suicide. Or to get assistance from someone technically qualified to help him to a humane and painless death.

Well, this is just plain dumb. The law is stupid and needs to be changed.

But evidently in order to get it done, somebody like Jack Kevorkian has to piss off all the boneheads who thump their bibles and invoke the wrath of an angry God who doesn't want anybody horning in on His turf, and the legislators, the police, the juries and judges whose power it is to enforce the laws of man.

I have no problem with this. Jack Kevorkian should have no problem with it either.

If anybody has a firm grasp on the transitory nature of life, and of the relative insignificance of trading one person's finite span of time here on Earth in exchange for the greater good of the greater number, it should be the Doctor of Death. Ten to 25 is a small price to pay if it wakes up our nation and its lawmakers, and results in a rewrite of the law books.

Because that's what really is required here. Kevorkian could conceivably have his conviction overturned on appeal. It could result from some technical mistake on the part of the prosecution. Maybe, despite the fact that the crime was caught on videotape, despite the fact that Kevorkian made no attempt to cover his tracks or hide his responsibility, the cops forgot to Mirandize the good doctor. If Kevorkian wins his liberty on grounds such as these, he loses his war.

His war is to change the law, and the only way that will happen is either for the U.S. Supreme Court to issue a sweeping legal opinion that laws prohibiting euthanasia and assisted suicide are unconstitutional--unlikely in the extreme--or public opinion will be so moved by this present Kevorkian case that legislators will write new laws providing for circumstances in which suicide and euthanasia are legal.

In the current climate of public opinion, the latter is unlikely, but still a better betting proposition than banking on the current Supreme Court. Unlikely, but undergoing change. Someday we as a society will recognize that the sanctity of life has everything to do with the quality of life, and with the individual's right to dictate this for himself.

Meanwhile, as ever, history requires martyrs to make important points.

Whether he consciously set out to become a martyr, the path Jack Kevorkian chose to make himself a lightning rod for the controversy swirling around this emotional issue guaranteed that this would be the result. Sorry, Jack, but this is the price you pay. It was marked on the sticker from Day One. We could have talked about it in theoretical terms until everybody lost interest, but by your controversial, and commendably attention-getting, tactics you have played a sort of classroom game of show-and-tell.

You made yourself a visual-aid, Jack, and we are beholden to you.


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