Right to die is a matter of free will

In America, it seems, when we feel uncomfortable about ethical dilemmas that challenge traditional assumptions, we tend to dodge the issue by splitting hairs or making ambiguous compromises. Should gays be allowed in the military? Only if they don’t talk about it. Should everyone possess the right to freely speak their mind? Yes, so long as what they’re saying isn’t too crazy. Recently, with the arrest of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a dilemma that has resurfaced is: Do suffering patients reserve the right to dictate their own death with the aid of practitioners?
Up until now, this question has confused the daylights out of us. Society is scrambling for a happy-medium loophole, and essentially we are sweeping the entire issue under the rug. This loophole is that the doctor can help patients kill themselves, but the doctor can’t do it him or herself. To add to the confusion, assisted suicide is deemed acceptable in some states such as Oregon, but active euthanasia is still taboo everywhere.
Such hairsplitting seems pointless since both practices would lead to the same result: the patient dies. This leaves the question, does a patient control his or her own fate? This is why, regardless of the outcome, Kevorkian’s latest stunt is profoundly important. Kevorkian is responsible for helping more than 130 people commit suicide and has been tried and acquitted three times.
Recently, he took his crusade one step further by administering active euthanasia to a man and allowing the ordeal to be filmed. His reason was to show that active euthanasia and assisted suicide are one and the same thing. Kevorkian sent the video tape to the police. Based on the tape alone, the medical examiner officially deemed the act a homicide. So legally, that’s all a prosecutor needed to charge Kevorkian. Two months later, the tape was aired during an interview with Kevorkian on “60 Minutes,” but Kevorkian had not yet been charged.
While euthanasia may seem creepy to most, it apparently does not strike everyone as being inherently evil. This might be because existing euthanasia laws seem not to derive from the golden rule. In fact, they sort of fly in the face of it. This being the case, it makes sense that people are confused.
In order for us to eliminate the confusion, we must face certain broad questions head on instead of avoiding them by fussing with details, going into denial or creating loopholes.
What are these questions? First of all, on what foundation should this law be primarily based, religion or liberty? Usually, the two don’t clash. Many of our laws are associated with the Ten Commandments. We have the liberty to break those commandments. But when it comes to the death business, there’s a head-on clash. Generally speaking, within our religious beliefs, humans do not have the liberty to play God. On the other hand, we believe liberty is an idea where individuals are free to dictate their own fate in the pursuit of happiness so long as they don’t hurt others. One way or the other, something’s got to give.
The second broad question is, why do we fret about the means more than the ends? “Pull the plug, but don’t inject.” Or, “Assisted suicide is OK, but not active euthanasia.” And again, “Let them take pills but don’t inject anything.” These statements ignore the fact that pulling the plug, taking a pill and injecting a poison all do precisely the same thing.
In this regard, even tactless Jack himself gets a little tripped up. Only specialized doctors, Kevorkian claims, should have the authority to administer such a grave task. But killing a person is easy. One doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist to do so, as evidenced by every state pen in America. What’s difficult is deciding whether or not people have the right to die when they want to.
Kevorkian also clouds the “means/ends” issue by saying somebody can dictate his or her own fate only if the patient’s wish and the medical justification match. Therefore, some high possessor of truth still must decide what constitutes justifiable grounds for suicide. This seems to contradict the entire issue of liberty that Kevorkian crusades for. Suffering, like feeling good, is completely metaphysical. If somebody says “I feel sad,” or “This is the best day of my life,” nobody can argue. Similarly, if somebody says, “I want to die,” no one can tell him or her otherwise. It doesn’t matter if he or she is depressed or quadriplegic. How do you measure suffering?
For a more coherent decision to be made, I think these issues — how one dies, who administers the death and who is allowed to die — should be non-issues.
If Kevorkian goes to prison, then we must think that personal liberty is subservient to the religious belief that one cannot play God. Therefore, assisted suicide and active euthanasia would be illegal — no meddlesome loopholes attached. If he walks, then we must think personal liberty is a higher priority than preventing one from playing God. In this case, it shouldn’t matter who wants death, who administers it or how it’s done, so long as there’s consent. All in all, the only question should be, do we have the right to die?
The current laws are confusing. While it’s acceptable to assist suicide in some states, it’s never acceptable to administer euthanasia. This moral confusion results in a twisted double standard. To eliminate the double standard, it should either be all or nothing. Hopefully Kevorkian’s case will bring us closer to that end.

Robert Kuznia’s column appears every Tuesday. Send comments to [email protected]