Dr. Kevorkian is dead, provoking a renewed wave of moral outrage among the religious and the self-righteous. The man appeared to be ghoulish, but his extremism puts the issue of the "right to die" in front of us in a way no panel of philosophers can.
Harry Edwards, for example, is often didactic and obnoxious but no one else has done so much to demand an end to rampant collegiate exploitation of black athletes. Meaningful change demands radical action. You may point to the so-called "peaceful" end to apartheid in South Africa but that would be delusional, given the millions of black South Africans who lost their lives in that struggle.
The 1960s Civil Rights Movement was denounced by many, in particular JFK and Bobby Kennedy, as extremist. Demonstrators were chided for their impatience. Their demonstrations were regarded at best as inconvenient, at worst as insurrectionist.
In the June 6, 2011 New York Times, Ross Douthat charges Kevorkian with murder because Dr. Death assisted in the suicides of individuals for whom autopsies revealed no pathology. Mr. Douthat assumes that, if there is a right to die (and he believes there is not), its supporters must claim it solely for the terminally ill.
A friend of mine at 93 recently "willed" herself to death. I recall this woman as one of the most brilliant individuals I've ever known. She was proud and tough and often said she would prefer death to living without dignity. Yet live without dignity she did for several years, oblivious to the dementia that had stolen her mind. She railed repeatedly and bitterly at her nurturing daughter for disposing of her junker of car that could not be fixed (and in any event my friend had lost her license), and for placing her in a nursing home. My friend demanded that her daughter return the car or "a reasonable facsimile” so she (at 93) could go out and get a job. She grew increasingly nasty and hostile, suspicious to the point of paranoia, of a woman who for many years had spent hours each week caring for her, running errands, and overseeing her meager funds, which had included steering her out of serious trouble with the bank.
Then, over lunch one afternoon, my friend's eyes suddenly cleared. After having denied an event her daughter and her caring buddy recalled, she told them she understood she had lost herself. "I remember not remembering," she said. At last, she realized that her mind had betrayed her. The next morning she didn't get out of bed although there was nothing visibly wrong with her. Going into the hospital, she laughed and joked and flirted with the attendants, her old self. She was placed in a bed and in less than an hour she had drifted out of her life.
The woman I had known 50 years earlier would have been horrified by all those years without showing gratitude while demanding extravagant contributions from others. She would've been mortified to see how little she understood of what was happening around her. As she approached it, wouldn't she have had the right to end her life before losing nearly everything that had made her the person she was?
My husband and I have agreed we do not want to linger as physical beings after our personalities and our intellect have disintegrated. Why should we be denied the right to be remembered for 70 or 80 years of being ourselves? Why should we instead drain our family and friends of their fondest recollections of us, replacing them with images of selfish, cantankerous, foolish shells? I do not say that anyone in the throes of dementia should die. Those who believe life is worth clinging to regardless should be permitted to cling to life, whatever the cost. I merely say that for a person who sees life as a collection of integral experiences, interactions, memories—for someone who wants to passing of a coherent “self” to coincide with the passing of the “container” for that self—this should be an option.
The right to end an existence that plagues us isn't simple. No rights are. The right to free speech ends, or ought to, at the point that speech incites harm to innocent people. Yet how to determine that? The Supreme Court just ruled that corporations have the right to peddle games that penalize children players who fail to accomplish a double rape. All this reminds me of the days when an 18 year old could be shipped to Viet Nam to die but could neither buy a drink nor vote.
We want rights to be carved in stone and their applications to be obvious. But a depressed person who decides on suicide rightly excites our protective instincts. After all, an untreated depression ought not to end in death. The loss of a partner, for example, leading to self-destruction becomes the proverbial permanent solution to a temporary problem.
But I knew a woman whose depression had not yielded to any therapy. Finally she placed herself in the hands of a psychiatrist for shock treatments. She told me that if these failed, she was determined to end her life. This was not a teenaged girl in the throes of hormonal upheaval. This was a mature woman who had endured years of unceasing misery. I loved her but I would've let her go.
Mr. Douthat questions the right to end hopeless pain through suicide. (He also seems to imagine that hopeless pain can only be physical, not psychological.) I think he has never experienced severe long-term pain. It is not a condition to which I would condemn anyone. The right to end life should require meeting certain qualifications, just as the right to drive a car. This is not a flippant comparison. If the State can end life following a trial, an individual should be enabled to end her own life following an examination of the circumstances that prompted the decision.
Years ago terminally ill patients could not direct hospital staff to forego heroic measures to sustain their lives. Today that is an option. Seeing only pain and misery ahead, and seeing clearly, should entitle us to assisted suicide. Like botched abortions before Roe v. Wade, declaring suicide illegal will not prevent botched suicide attempts. Must we condemn people to live without hope, punishing them for seeking release from agony?
We do so, I believe, because we are in thrall to religion. The Constitution may dictate separating the actions of the church from the actions of the State, but religious beliefs that demand proselytizing continue to encroach on the rights of those of us who regard faith as just that—not science, not fact, no obvious and not inured against rejection by those who prefer logic. Some of us see life as an accident and, as we do for our permanently sick pets, we look to death for relief.