“I have grandchildren. I hate to leave, but I can’t do this anymore.”
recorded interview with a terminally ill woman prior to her death
brought about through the assistance of Dr. Jack Kevorkian
Several years ago my favorite correspondent and I were examining his latest acquisition, a .454 Casull pistol, arguably the most powerful handgun in the world. Fans of the .44 Magnum, or .50 Desert Eagle need not contest this claim. The point is that, at close range, any one of these monsters would pretty much remove the top half of your head, effectively speeding your body towards room temperature.
My correspondent and I examined the Casull, which uses a cartridge not much smaller than a double-A battery and agreed that, properly aimed, it would guarantee the end of life. We discussed our inevitable decline towards death, an event we hope is not yet imminent. This led to a contemplation of the weeks, months, or even years preceding death when life might become unbearable. Pain, incontinence, dementia, immobility, and a feeling of utter despair await many of us at the end of our lives. A few of us will be lucky enough to die peacefully in our sleep, but more will suffer the lingering consequences of the approach of death.
We agreed the Casull would be an effective remedy, though the attendant mess would place a ghoulish memory in the minds of those we left behind. An open-casket funeral, if you care about such things, would be out of the question.
Jack 'Dr. Death' Kevorkian, served seven years for second-degree murder after giving Thomas Youk a lethal injection. "No change happens without somebody going to prison."
This discussion prompted me to look into the life and work of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, also known as “Dr. Death.” At first glance, Kevorkian is a bit scary—a cadaverous-looking man who appears already to have achieved what many of his patients were seeking. While he is famous, or infamous, for assisting people in ending their lives, Kevorkian’s passion is far more encompassing than simply the right to die. For Kevorkian, the underlying issue here is liberty—whether we are free to do as we wish with our own bodies; whether we are free to live our lives as we choose, so long as we do not bring harm to others.
Kevorkian’s arguments are based on rational-objectivist philosophy and, he points out, fully supported by the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the Constitution:
“The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
These two amendments typically get short shrift, even from avowed libertarians for whom the 1st, 2nd, and 5th Amendments are sacrosanct. Amendments IX and X make it clear that all liberties, including the right to death, are “reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
In the 213 years since the ratification of our Constitution the bulk of the work of legislatures, both state and federal, has been dedicated to denying or disparaging rights “retained by the people.”
Advocates of broad government powers would argue that, to the extent that countless rights have been taken from us over the past two centuries, this has been done by legislators elected to represent the “will of the people.” We have, according to this argument, voted away our liberties time and time again through our elected representatives. This, they would say, represents the will the people. Legislators seem to believe the people favor certainty over liberty.
Legislatures local and federal do not give a damn about the will of the people, nor are they concerned about what Alexis de Tocqueville called the “tyranny of the majority.” Most legislators have only one real interest: re-election. They will pander to the masses, lie, obfuscate, remain silent, or bluster shamelessly, each of these alternatives taken, not to support the right, but to ensure their return to membership in the elected aristocracy. According to one shrewd, if cynical, political observer:
“[For a legislator] the essence of political activity consists in a heroic struggle to keep permanent hold on this milk- bottle as a source of livelihood for himself and his family. The more his wife and children are dependent on him, the more stubbornly will he fight to maintain for himself the representation of his … constituency. For that reason any other person who gives evidence of political capacity is his personal enemy. In every new movement he will apprehend the possible beginning of his own downfall. And everyone who is a better man than himself will appear to him in the light of a menace…
“How little such a line of conduct commends itself to our public leaders nowadays is proved by the general corruption prevalent among the cabal which at the present moment feels itself called to political leadership. In the whole cabal there is scarcely one who is properly equipped for this task…
“Those … who have been elected by the people come from various dissimilar callings in life and show highly variable degrees of political capacity, with the result that the whole combination is disjointed and sometimes presents quite a sorry picture. Surely nobody believes that these chosen representatives of the nation are the choice spirits or first-class intellects. Nobody, I hope, is foolish enough to pretend that hundreds of statesmen can emerge from papers placed in the ballot box by electors who are anything else but averagely intelligent. The absurd notion that men of genius are born out of universal suffrage cannot be too strongly repudiated. In the first place, those times may be really called blessed when one genuine statesman makes his appearance among a people. Such statesmen do not appear all at once in hundreds or more. Secondly, among the broad masses there is instinctively a definite antipathy towards every outstanding genius. There is a better chance of seeing a camel pass through the eye of a needle than of seeing a really great man ‘discovered’ through an election.”
Kevorkian sees the fundamental weakness and ineptitude of legislatures clearly, but he takes the matter one step further by pointing out that the real power in our country lies not with presidents and governors, not with state legislatures and congress, but with the courts.
Legislators, concerned primarily with prevailing in the next election, will vote for any measure that garners for them either campaign funds or votes, preferably both. They care little about the right, or about justice and are happy to defer to the courts. When the courts uphold them, they proclaim the matter settled and hail the courts’ decision as a ratification of their wisdom. When the courts repudiate them, legislators throw up their hands and say, “Ah well, we tried, but the courts are the ultimate authority. Perhaps we’ll have better luck next time.”
And the courts? Doesn’t it strike you as strange that most judges in this country run on party tickets? What does party affiliation have to do with the issue of whether a law is consistent with the Constitution or not? Even in those cases where judges do not claim party affiliation (e.g., the Supreme Court of the United States) the political leanings of judges are carefully scrutinized. “The Law and the Constitution be damned,” say the legislators. “We want judges who will get us off the hook for trampling wholesale on the rights of individuals.
Even the courts themselves have a way of weaseling out from under responsibility for the consequences of their decisions. They cite ‘precedents.’ The more stupid decisions made by other judges, the better.
Kevorkian chose to fight his battle for liberty in an arena where he had experience and expertise. You may think you have no stake in Kevorkian’s battle. You may even disagree with his notion of the ‘right to death.’ But before you condemn him, ask yourself, “Do I have a right to my own body? If I don’t, who does?”
Perhaps in some future, more enlightened, age (don’t hold your breath) Kevorkian will be recognized as a champion of human rights.
(At this writing, assisted suicide is legal in Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Switzerland as well as Oregon, Washington and Montana).