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Jewish World Review March 30, 1999 /13 Nissan, 5759

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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Are euthanasia advocates truly compassionate or do they merely fear being burdens themselves?

(JWR) ---- (
WHEN IT COMES TO PUBLIC OPINION, Jack Kevorkian continues to get away with murder.

Last week, a Michigan jury convicted Kevorkian of second-degree murder for killing Thomas Youk by lethal injection, but many Americans disagree with the verdict, according to polls taken after Kevorkian's conviction.

Why do so many people remain sympathetic to a man who has ended130 lives, by his own admission? The surprising answer is that most Kevorkian sympathizers say they are motivated by compassion for the terminally ill.

They believe Kevorkian is alleviating pain and suffering --- both the victims' and their families'. Rarely publicized in the stories about Kevorkian's "assisted suicides" or his "mercy killing" of Thomas Youk is the simple fact that most of Kevorkian's victims did not suffer from end-stage fatal disease -- or in some cases, from any diagnosable physical ailment whatever.

The only factor that characterized all Kevorkian's victims was that they wanted to end their lives --- or at lease they thought they did long enough for Kevorkian to administer his fatal dose of carbon monoxide or lethal drugs.

Might some of them have changed their minds if Kevorkian hadn't been there with his Death Machine? Or if their families hadn't been so willing to let them die? The dirty little secret about most of Kevorkian's victims is that they had become inconvenient. They were sick, or depressed, or both. Unable to take care of themselves, neither the victims nor their families believed anyone else should be burdened with doing so either.

So is it really compassion that motivates supporters of assisted suicide and euthanasia? Or could it simply be fear? Are they afraid that they might one day become a burden no one wants to care for -- or that they might be asked to bear the burden of caring for someone else? Euthanasia solves the problem by disposing of the burden altogether.

The elderly, as well as the young and middle-aged, have become obsessed with autonomy. No one wants to risk becoming a burden to others, and society no longer expects families to share in the care of the elderly or sick.

Social Security has made the elderly largely financially independent, while assisted-living institutions have replaced families as the domicile of the frail and sick at the end of their lives. But these new arrangements may have diminished our ability to learn true compassion.

Death, like birth, used to be a shared family experience that most often took place at home. Before the advent of modern antibiotics and other life-prolonging medical treatments, death usually came quickly to the very ill. Now we can prolong the lives of seriously sick or injured people, but we've not necessarily made it easier to care for them. What's more, fewer households are made up of several generations of one family living together --- the kind that provided helping hands when one member could no longer care for himself.

In the past, the care of the sick or elderly wasn't viewed as any more onerous a burden than the care of infants or children. It was simply part of the natural cycle of the family.

Both of my grandmothers lived with us at the end of their lives, as their own mothers had with them. (In my family at least, the men usually died years earlier than their wives.) I expect my mother will live with us soon -- she knows she's welcome anytime. But it's relatively uncommon today for grandparents to live in the same home with their children and grandchildren. Consequently we've become less acquainted with the process of dying --- which for most of us occurs slowly, often over years. And what we don't know, we fear.

We've come to believe that death should be quick and painless, but it rarely is. True compassion consists not in eliminating the sick and dying, but in caring for them.

If more of us were willing to assume that burden, perhaps we would have less fear of becoming a burden ourselves someday.


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©1999, Creators Syndicate