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Dr. Death and the Law

Kris Schnee

On Tuesday, Dr. Jack Kevorkian was sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison for second-degree murder. A jury found him guilty of killing Thomas Youk, who was dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease. While Kevorkian’s conviction may be a setback for the cause of legalizing assisted suicide, the jury is to be commended for its adherence to the law. In what may be Kevorkian’s final case, he videotaped Youk’s death and had it broadcast to millions of Americans on 60 Minutes. In this way, he once again brought his cause into the national spotlight, forcing us to think about the difficult issue of euthanasia.

What should we do with a terminally ill patient? The answer is simple in many cases: whatever that patient wants! Our Declaration of Independence declares that all people have an inalienable right to life, and to do with their lives as they see fit. If this is so, then why is there not an equally inviolable right for anyone to choose to end their life, which no one else has a right to control? By extension, terminally ill people who are unable to die by their own hand are justified in calling for someone to help them. If they can find someone like Kevorkian who is willing to perform the procedure -- and many doctors would refuse, since euthanasia clearly violates the Hippocratic Oath, well-meant or not -- then there is nothing fundamentally wrong with someone else pulling the switch to cause a patient’s death.

One of the objections raised against the concept of legalizing euthanasia is the fear that “Dr. Death,” like the serial killer his foes make him out to be, will seek out vulnerable people and execute them for his own pleasure. But as long as euthanasia is handled with an ounce of common sense, this horror will not be a problem. Once again, “informed consent” is a good legal rule. If a patient clearly expresses a wish to die, after witnesses find him or her sane and conscious, then it should be legal for someone to pull the plug; in all other cases it should not be. If the murder laws are changed in this way, people who wish to die will die, and those who wish to live will live. Anyone performing euthanasia without consent will still be a murderer, subject to prosecution.

Most of the gray cases are fairly easy to resolve. If a person is rendered unable to speak or even nod, then obviously there can be no consent without a signed living will stating the conditions under which they wish to die. What if a patient’s family wants their ailing relative to stop suffering, but no wishes have been expressed by the patient personally? In that case, it’s not suicide. But we do need to think about the definition of life itself, to rewrite euthanasia policy intelligently. Is a person with an irrevocably destroyed brain still alive, for instance? Should the informed consent rule apply in cases where, in a sense, the patient is already dead?

Kevorkian has succeeded in making America think about an important medical issue, but the jury was completely justified in convicting him. He broke one of the most important laws of our society -- by the present definition, what he did was murder, and it carries a severe penalty. The jury did its job, ignoring the media furor and political argument around the trial, and upheld the law.

Kevorkian’s act of civil disobedience went as such acts usually do -- the protester got attention and paid dearly for it. While some people may respect his cause or even view him as a hero, he is, at least for now, a murderer, whatever his intentions.