Slippery slopes and other horrors

During his first trial five years ago, Jack Kevorkian showed his general respect for the judicial process by ostentatiously studying Japanese throughout. The metaphor was apt – he had suddenly and deliberately attacked the medical establishment. Then, and for years after, he won victory after victory, in large part due to his Yamamoto, Geoffrey Fieger.

But the admiral has been dismissed, and the enemy forces are closing in. Next month the refitted pathologist goes on trial again, this time for first-degree murder in addition to assisted suicide, plus illegal use of the drugs used to dispatch poor Thomas Youk five months ago.

This time he means to serve as his own lawyer, and the word he may most need to remember is kamikaze. Last week Kevorkian posed an intellectually interesting argument that charges should be dismissed because the Ninth Amendment says that just because the Constitution lists certain rights, it doesn’t deny us others; in this case, self-determination.

That isn’t likely to fly. Though he has a few young attorneys around him, Jack the Dripper means to be his own counsel. This is apt to be disastrous. By Easter, he is likely to be convicted of one or all of those charges. He will be jailed, whereupon he will announce he is going on a hunger strike, and the authorities will force-feed him, and sooner or later (he will be 71) his personal saga will come to a relatively unhappy end. This is a tragedy of his own making.

For his impact on how we see the end of life, and on medicine itself, is almost beyond measure. The University of Michigan held a seminar Monday: "Covering Assisted Death; the Press, the Law and Public Policy."

Incidentally, I have been severely criticized on this issue; largely because I have written newspaper stories about what has happened in the courts and elsewhere, while at the same time expressing my opinion about these events, mainly in this column. I plead guilty. Part of the institutional hypocrisy of what passes for journalism today is a general belief that those who cover events ought not to have opinions, or in any event ought never to express them. I think the opposite. I would much more respect an honest dissenter, especially if I thought she or he were trying to be fair.

Sweet little old me aside, on this issue, the media have, as Carl Bernstein has said about the press in general in the ’90s, usually set new records for getting it wrong. What has been going on too often has been reduced to stories about an odd little man with a death obsession.

Yes, he is a zealot, and he paints ghastly pictures. He also has strayed, over and over, from his own guidelines, and has helped several die who were probably more apt subjects for psychology. At the very least, there was in some cases a perception of unseemly haste.

That is not what this is all about. The truth, which society and our health care systems are designed to keep from us, is that we are, sorry, all going to die; most of us, not especially pleasantly. Stewart Alsop, himself dying of cancer, said years ago that "there comes a time when a dying man needs death like a sleepy man needs sleep."

Who can say when that time has come for anybody else? How dare we? When I was a college student, in 1972, abortion was still illegal, and a proposal to allow it was placed on the Michigan ballot. I heard a Roman Catholic priest seriously argue that if it were legalized, unwed mothers soon would be physically forced to undergo abortions.

Frightened Michigan voters turned it down, but the United States Supreme Court came to humanity’s rescue two months later. State-forced abortions seem not to have happened, but the same people today warn us of the "slippery slope," whereby if we permit anybody to choose to die, why, forced euthanasia for cripples and the comatose will be just around the corner. Those arguments are intellectually dishonest. Yes, there will be some abuses down the line. And yes, as George Washington knew, if you let the common man have the vote, he sooner or later might elect David Jayes in addition to Franklin D. Roosevelts, but that is the risk of freedom.

Now I have no idea what Martin Luther King Jr. would have thought about any of these issues, and anyone who pretends to is lying, but I do know what he said the last night of his life.

"Like any man, I would like to live a long life – longevity has its place.

"But I’m not worrying about that now," he said, knowing pretty well he wasn’t going to see 40.

Those who are most opposed to the freedom to choose argue as if the greatest good were mere physical survival, and seem to believe if we can only deaden acute pain, any sane person would wish to cling to it forever. Wrong. But neither did mankind move from cannibalism to social security overnight. Having essentially decriminalized assisted suicide, Kevorkian now appears to be demanding, with his in-your-face euthanasia, that he be allowed to dispatch anyone who wants to die and who he thinks merits medical assistance.

This will diminish his reputation, for a time. Still, John Brown, the antislavery fanatic, is remembered as worse than a zealot. But can you name one of the polite men in suits who intellectually defended slavery? Sic semper tyrannis, y’all.

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