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Jewish World Review /Dec. 2,1998 /13 Kislev 5759

Mona Charen

Mona Charen

Dangerous ground

IT IS A LUCKY THING that Jack Kevorkian is such a ghoul. If he looked and sounded like Marcus Welby, the movement for euthanasia would have made much more significant progress than it has.

Is "ghoul" too strong a word? Only those who haven't had the pleasure of viewing Kevorkian's artwork would flinch from that description. One of his paintings, titled "Very Still Life," features, in The New York Times account of his show a couple of years ago, "a blue flower blossoming though the gaping eye socket of a skull with a twisted lower jaw." Another painting depicts a severed head, blood dripping from the neck. The hands holding the head are Nazi on one side and Turkish on the other.

In yet another painting, titled "Paralysis," Kevorkian rendered a man whose brain and spinal cord have been ripped from his body and hang above him from chains.

This is not the imagination, it seems safe to say, of your run-of-the-mill humanitarian. Some may wonder why, in his latest defiance of the Michigan law banning assisted suicide on CBS' "60 Minutes," Kevorkian decided to deliver the poison himself rather than let the suicide pull the string that would release the deadly chemicals.

The answer is that Kevorkian is after far more than simply challenging the assisted suicide law. That's old hat. He has already "assisted" more than 100 people to kill themselves, and the authorities in Michigan have been able to do little about it. Three juries have acquitted him.

No, Kevorkian's goal is larger than that. His is a eugenics project. He would like to see those with disabilities, those who are ill and those who are troubled eliminated, preferably by their own hands but by his or others' if necessary. "The voluntary self-elimination of individual and mortally diseased or crippled lives," Kevorkian once wrote, "taken collectively, can only enhance the preservation of public health and welfare."

It is sound prosecution for the authorities in Michigan to indict Kevorkian. But much more important is for the society that imagines he is opening a "dialogue" on the treatment of the terminally ill and the nature of autonomy to think again.

Many support Kevorkian out of the mistaken belief that his is the only answer to machine-prolonged, painful deaths with tubes and wires doing the work of our hearts, lungs and kidneys for weeks or even months.

There are two answers to this. The first is that the more widespread use of living wills -- in which a healthy person specifies ahead of time in a legally binding document what extraordinary measures he desires or rejects if he becomes incapacitated -- has reduced the numbers of people subjected to such suffering. The second is the alternative of hospice care.

In the face of a terminal illness, millions of Americans choose hospice, or palliative care, over traditional therapy. The purpose of a hospice is to make the patient as comfortable as possible -- physically, psychically and spiritually -- at the end of life. That is the humane answer to suffering, not a shove into the grave. Dr. Kathleen Foley, a pain specialist at Sloan Kettering Medical Center in New York, has noted that once patients' pain is under control, requests for death diminish drastically.

Think hard, think very hard, before endorsing assisted suicide or euthanasia. It isn't as simple as helping those who can look forward to nothing but weeks or months of pain and agony. One of Kevorkian's victims, Rebecca Badger, a 39-year-old woman who came to him claiming to have multiple sclerosis, turned out not to have been sick at all, at least not physically. The coroner found no evidence of MS.

Others of those Kevorkian has hurried to the cemetery were ill, but not terminally. All, it is safe to say, were depressed. One of the women Kevorkian euthanized had been beaten by her husband in the week preceding her request for suicide. Some of his "patients" are dead within 24 hours of laying eyes on him. Is that time enough to establish anything?

This is very dangerous ground, ripe for abuse. The blinkered endorsement of "autonomy" will come at the expense of compassion, justice and mercy.


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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.