No one asked the important question: Is it wrong? Why not?
Valentine's evening "20/20" on ABC did a short piece on the now well-known Dr. Death, Dr. Jack Kervorkian. He's been making headlines because he assists patients in committing suicide and he's invented a machine to help him out. He does the preliminary work, inserting the hypodermic needles and so forth, and then the patient pushes a button that allows a deadly drug to flow through the hypodermic and into the veins. Of course, this rapidly kills the patient.
This could be considered active-voluntary euthanasia or simply, physician assisted suicide, depending on who's doing the defining. Kervorkian sees it as the later. The state of Michigan, where this happened, sees it as flat out murder. Kervorkian is presently under arraignment for two counts of murder for assisting in the suicide of two women in October.
I've been really concerned about the things that we see on T.V. and you have to watch and listen very carefully because the facts are sometimes given in a very biased way. Loaded words are used to persuade you without giving you solid content. You are given information but no reasons. You're being informed but not educated so you can't judge whether the information given you is sound or reasonable. I think this particular show had some good things in it but I hope that in listening to a show like "Talk from the Heart", you are learning more to listen with a different ear.
One of my instructors at Simon Greenleaf, Dr. J.P. Moreland, mentioned that the more that you find out about a topic, the more you're able to see. And hopefully by listening to a show like this, you're able to learn some more things and you're able to see and pick out things in discussions and arguments and broadcasts that you would never have been able to pick out before. I hope you can watch things like "60 Minutes" or "20/20" or the evening news or "Face the Nation" or preachers, Christian television, people you listen to on tape, other Christian teaching you hear on the air, and that when you listen to them you can see more and hear more. You'll discern more. You'll be able to ask better questions as a result.
One of the things that really jumped out for me in this discussion between Barbara Walters and Dr. Kervorkian about his suicide machine is that the critical question was never asked. This was a supreme weakness in the interview in my opinion. There were questions about the legality of his actions, the atmosphere in the room when he did this procedure, in one case in a cabin in a state park when two women took their lives with Kervorkian's assistance. And, by the way, with husbands and friends in attendance. She asked questions about the doctor's feelings and doubts or second thoughts, if he had any, about his actions. But never the important questions.
Regardless of the legality, and Michigan has no law against suicide, is assisting someone to commit suicide a breech of morality? Simply put, is it wrong? I have a hard time imagining that any television personality, especially in the media, can find the intestinal fortitude to mouth those judgmental words: is it wrong? But that was the question that needed to be asked. And the critical follow up question, if it is wrong or if it isn't, why or why not? In other words, what standard, or what rationale establishes this action, Dr. Kervorkian, as a morally sound medical practice?
Clearly, there was an atmosphere of censure, like this is kind of a questionable practice. But there were no direct value judgments. Barbara never asked the question. Once again, like her colleagues, she informs in this interview, but she does not educate you. Without an answer to this moral question, without a rationale to think ethically about this issue, there's really no way to make ethically sound decisions, and here's the key, in a way that we are not thoroughly victimized by sentimentality. After all, it's hard not to be sympathetic with the plight of these unfortunate people. It's very difficult. Your heart goes out to them. You listen to Dr. Kervorkian and he's genuine and sincere. He's trying to help people.
How do we keep ourselves from being victimized by sentimentality, by empathy, by concern, by human emotion in making critical decisions that really relate fundamentally, not just to life and death decisions, that's obvious, but really these are kinds of life and death decisions that say something critical about what we think about human beings? How do we make those decisions? We have to have some guidelines. We can't just follow our gut because our gut can mislead us and make us do things that we consider loving, but are flatly wrong.
I think that I know one of the reasons that Barbara was a bit timid about moralizing. The issue of morality had been decided at the beginning of the segment. Did you notice that? By head count. They took a poll. At the top of the segment Barbara noted that a national survey showed that most people thought that physician assisted suicide should be a matter of personal choice. And that simple fact, a public poll, apparently exhausted the moral dimensions of this issue. It was never brought up again. It was resolved. The people have spoken. You may be a little uncomfortable with aspects of this, but since everybody seems to agree that it is a matter of personal choice, then we should allow this or at least we can't question on that level. Is this right? If it is, why, by what rationale?
Kervorkian's own comment was kind of interesting here. He simply said all of society knows I'm not a criminal. He was appealing to the common opinion of what's right and wrong. Then he accused the legal system with having a dark age mentality on this whole thing. As Dr. Moreland noted once, the idea that things go out of date, which is Dr. Kervorkian's suggestion, works well in Detroit if you're making automobiles, but this has no place in moral thinking. How do moral things go out of date?
That's called normative relativism, the view that each culture should decide for themselves what's right and wrong. It's morality by head count. And, incidentally, you might like to know because many people espouse this view of morality, this was precisely the defense that the Nazis used at Nuremberg. You can't judge us, we took a poll, this is our morality. Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, political dissidents, mentally retarded, handicapped, broken, non-repairable people, they die. That's our decision. Get out of our face. That was their defense.
Now the world tribunal didn't buy that, nor should they. But that was 40 years ago, and in our enlightened culture nowadays, in this country, mentally retarded, handicapped, broken, non-repairable people do die. It's a frightening thought because we're doing morality by the polls, just like it was done 40 years ago which led to those atrocities.
But it's interesting that we speak often of the 6 million Jews. We don't speak of those that were mentally retarded, handicapped, people that were broken and non-repairable that the Nazis put to death.
Isn't it interesting that it's the same argument today when we talk about the viability of someone's existence that we talk in those terms? They'll never get any better. There's no hope for a meaningful life for this unborn child that has Down's Syndrome. This newly born child that has a cleft palate. They are non-repairable, no deposit, no return. Let them die. We either kill them in the womb or allow them to die once they're born, and sometimes directly assisted in dying. It's called infanticide and it happens all the time. I have some horror stories that I could tell you that happened in the South Bay close by where I live. It's not just there, it's all over. It's the same mentality. No deposit, no return.
I want to make a couple of comments that will help you navigate through this difficult issue. One of the reasons that it's difficult is because it's not hard to sympathize with people who are in a position where they would want this kind to die. The unfortunate thing, though it does bespeak of the good qualities of empathy and a desire to mitigate human pain, but people don't move beyond the issue of personal sympathy. They don't really think through how one makes an ethical decision. What is the right thing to do?
Clearly, we should not approach everything in life from the perspective of let's do the thing that feels right in the moment. There are a lot of things that feel right or feel good that are flat out wrong. Part of being an adult is being able to discern between good and bad, right and wrong, sound and unsound, irrespective of how we personally feel about something or what we may personally want. That's a sign of being a grown up.
The first thing that I observe about this is that life is not the most important thing in life. Of course I'm speaking here from a Christian world view, but there's more to life than life. We do not go through life as the sole goal being to stay alive as long as possible. There are some things that some people hopefully feel are transcendent values that they would give their life for. Particularly if you're a Christian or theist of some sort, you understand that all of reality is not contained just in life here on this earth.
I don't believe that we try to keep someone alive at all times for the longest time regardless of the situation. I think there's an obligation that we have to care for people, but when a person's time comes, it comes. Dying is a natural process. It's not the end of all things. We don't hold life up as some kind of idol.
Having said that though, and offering that as a balance, I don't want to say that we are ultimately in control of when our life ends. In other words, life is not the kind of thing that we can arbitrarily take at our whim or our decision because it has some deeper fundamental value. It is not just instrumental value to us, it has intrinsic value, a value all its own.
The second observation that I want to make about this circumstance is that this whole procedure and Dr. Kervorkian redefine what the role of medicine is, or more specifically, the role of doctors and the role they play in our society. Traditionally, doctors have been healers. But not only healers, they've also been care-givers. Such that if a human body couldn't be fixed, the human being could still be cared for. That was true because people viewed humans as having intrinsic value, not merely instrumental value. What do I mean by that?
We are not merely instruments that bring us to something that has value, happiness, pleasure, joy, quality of life, something like that. Apart from those considerations, we have value in ourselves because we're human beings.
This is, by the way, the women's movement objects to pornography. Women become an object, a means to an end, not an end in themselves. They are just something to be used.
But do you understand, friends, that whenever you use a quality of life argument, you are arguing that human beings are just something to be used, used to obtain a certain state of existence? And if that state of existence cannot be obtained then that human being, bereft of its worth, of its instrumental value, doesn't have any intrinsic value and can be forfeited. That's exactly what's happening here.
So in the past the doctor not only fixed, but cared for people who had value. Now the attitude is that if you can't be fixed and if you can't have that quality of life, then your life is legitimately forfeited. That's a significant change.
When Dr. Kervorkian was asked about taking this critical life and death decision into his own hands he said, "I'm not making that decision. The patient makes them." Then he added this. "A doctor is a servant and I'm here to serve the needs of the patient." It's an unusual statement about a doctor's role, especially in Kervorkian's use of the term "needs." He said, "I'm here to serve the needs of the patient." This is a loaded word. He's not using the word "needs" in the way it is normally used. Does this patient need to die? They don't need to die. They want to die. Ironically, he is serving, not their needs, but their desires.
And what's unusual about the use of the word here is that usually in the past, when a doctor talked about serving a patient's needs, he did what was good for the patient to keep the patient alive. In other words, the word "need" was defined in terms of what helped to keep that patient alive. It was a word describing something that was essential to the health of the patient. That's what a need was. Even when the patient was fighting the doctor, the doctor still told them to do what he said because they needed it.
Now Dr. Kervorkian is saying what the patient needs is not what promotes their health, but what promotes their death. Isn't that an unusual twist? Ultimately what he is saying is that he is here to serve this patient's desire. But that's not entirely true because there are many people that he turns down by his own admission. He doesn't believe that everybody who wants to die should. He turns down 97% of the people that contact him for help. So that's a little bit confusing too.
The third thing that I want to mention is that the issue of suicide or active-voluntary euthanasia, active meaning that there is a step taken to bring about the death and voluntary in that the patient accedes to this procedure. This whole question really hinges on world view considerations. What is true about the world and about the spiritual realm and about what human beings are. In that regard, suicide would be moral if individual autonomy was the very highest ideal. In other words, people should be allowed to do what they want, the libertarian view.
Of course, that view really proves too much here because if autonomy is really the final goal, then people should be allowed to take their life for any reason they want, if someone stubs their toe or loses their boyfriend, they're bummed out. If it's really up to them, they should be able to take their life. It seems like autonomy proves too much because if autonomy is the rule, there should be no restrictions whatsoever. But Dr. Kervorkian suggests restrictions. If autonomy is the issue, then you should be able to commit suicide.
What if society has a duty to protect its people? What if autonomy isn't the biggest issue? What if life is a gift? If you argue that life is a gift, it's hard without bringing theological, and specifically theistic, elements into the discussion. What if life is a gift of stewardship? What if we have a responsibility to the community around us? What if the community has a responsibility to us? That's called paternalism. If those things prevail, then suicide would not be moral because you would be violating those responsibilities.
One last thought, and this relates to the world view issue. This decision to allow suicide under the circumstances, or any euthanasia frankly, makes serious assumptions about what happens on the other side of the grave. Because the heart of all of this, at least in the rhetoric of it, is a heart of compassion that wants to end people's suffering.
But what if suicide doesn't end their suffering? What if suicide ushers them into deeper and greater suffering, suffering beyond their wildest imagination? In that sense, helping them to commit suicide would not be a loving thing to do, it would be a cruel thing to do.
Kervorkian feels that he's helping people because he's ending them misery. But it's interesting to me that religiously he is an agnostic. This man does not know what lies on the other side of the grave, yet he is helping people to get there sooner.
Those are a few things you can chew on when trying to make heads or tails of this whole euthanasia, suicide, death machine, Dr. Kervorkian issue.