by Fr. Charlie Irvin
Mercy killing and assisted suicide are much in the news, “Doctor” Jack Kevorkian and his flamboyant attorney Geoffrey Fiegher doing their best to keep it so under the O. J. Simpson trial’s avalanche. Along with the showmanship produced by the Kevorkian & Fiegher troupe, a great deal of fuzzy thinking has developed, much to their advantage. Emotions and sentimental feelings are necessarily added to the brew, given our panic when faced with human pain and suffering. What are we to think? We do, after all, need to think! Feelings are wonderful; feelings are also fickle, tyrannical, and destabilizing. Convictions are needed, particularly in hard and painful cases such as those presented on center stage by the two chief protagonists mentioned above. Messers. Kevorkian and Fiegher keep telling us that those who are against the “right” to assisted suicide are religious fanatics, insensitive beasts who worship suffering (Catholics and their crucifixes), right wing religious zealots who seek to inflict pain upon others. Geoffrey Fiegher is even on record stating that Michigan’s statute against assisted suicide is just so much “papal bull”. What he wants us to ignore is the fact that 32 other states in our nation have statutes against assisted suicide. I didn’t realize the pope had such power in our country.
Mercy killing and assisted suicide are much in the news, “Doctor” Jack Kevorkian and his flamboyant attorney Geoffrey Fiegher doing their best to keep it so under the O. J. Simpson trial’s avalanche. Along with the showmanship produced by the Kevorkian & Fiegher troupe, a great deal of fuzzy thinking has developed, much to their advantage. Emotions and sentimental feelings are necessarily added to the brew, given our panic when faced with human pain and suffering.
What are we to think? We do, after all, need to think! Feelings are wonderful; feelings are also fickle, tyrannical, and destabilizing. Convictions are needed, particularly in hard and painful cases such as those presented on center stage by the two chief protagonists mentioned above. Messers. Kevorkian and Fiegher keep telling us that those who are against the “right” to assisted suicide are religious fanatics, insensitive beasts who worship suffering (Catholics and their crucifixes), right wing religious zealots who seek to inflict pain upon others. Geoffrey Fiegher is even on record stating that Michigan’s statute against assisted suicide is just so much “papal bull”. What he wants us to ignore is the fact that 32 other states in our nation have statutes against assisted suicide. I didn’t realize the pope had such power in our country.
KILLING WITH KINDNESS
Euthanasia is killing, killing in the name of compassion and mercy. Euthanasia extends the license of state permitted killing; when permitted, it allows one human being to kill another. Euthanasia is presented by its advocates as a caring, merciful, humane act. Its advocates employ a two pronged strategy claiming
- that it should be “legalized” by the legislature, and
- that it is a fundamental constitutional right.
Assisted suicide differs from euthanasia only in degree, not in kind. It, too, is a social contract; it enlists the support of another person to take part in the killing of the one wishing to die. There is an agreement, a contract, if you will. There is nothing private about it; it is quite social. The distinction between assisted suicide and euthanasia appears to more one of methodology than one of strategy or intentionality. Precisely to what extent the assisting person takes direct action in placing the immediate and proximate cause of death remains open to question; techniques appear to be yet developing in their subtlety.
Jack Kevorkian’s attorneys employ basically the same two- pronged strategy as that used by the proponents of euthanasia but, in their constitutional argument, take it one step beyond. Geoffrey Fiegher has on a number of occasions used the news conference platform to declare that the “right to assisted suicide is more fundamental than the other rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.” No court of law, however, has declared that. Evidently he wants to build his argument on extra-legal grounds just in case the courts can’t find the claimed “right” in constitutional jurisprudence and Court decisions. If it is “more fundamental than the Constitution”, then no matter what the Supreme Court decides Mr. Fiegher can still find the right to be “fundamental”.
He’ll tell us that the Right to Die is an “absolute right” without mentioning that in the opposite matter, namely the Right to Life, he has decreed that “there is no such thing as an absolute sanctity of life”. When it comes to the Right to Life, it is tenuous, but when it comes to the Right to Die, it is absolute. Or stated another way, if Geoffrey Fiegher is in favor of a “right”, it is absolute, and if he is not in favor of it, it is not. And he holds the view (certainly!) that free human choice is absolutely sacred. One can assume Mr. Fiegher has never claimed consistency in his dogmas.
The coolness of considered thought leads us to reason along other lines. Upon examination of the existing jurisprudence we would find that the Quinlan and Cruzan cases specifically distinguish between the withdrawal of artificial life support systems and the direct killing of a human being, an activity in which all governments have an immediate interest. The criminal laws of all states prohibit the direct and intentional killing of another human being regardless of the consent of the one committing suicide or the intentions of the merciful killer acting as his or her agent.
Well, all right, suppose Messrs. Fiegher and Kevorkian win their case, then what? You then can expect logical developments to follow. Why should we limit the “right to die” exclusively to the terminally ill? Why not bring Jack Kevorkian in to minister to the “seriously” ill? And why not extend the privilege to those who are miserable for non-medical reasons? It is useful to recall that when Jack Kevorkian entered upon his mission (before his medical license was
revoked) he “assisted” just such emotionally depressed people to commit suicide. It has only been lately that he has elected to assist suffering people with extremely pitiable cases in order that he might, upon his attorney’s advice, build up public sympathy for his inevitable trial. If Jack Kevorkian and his attorneys succeed, some troubling questions will arise. What about mongoloids? Mentally handicapped? Deformed persons? Those who suffer from Alzheimer’s? Lou Gehrig’s Disease? Homeless street people? Blacks? Jews? Catholics? Right Wing Fundamentalists? Those who fail their SAT tests?
THE RIGHTS IN QUESTION
The courts have had to deal with a number of rights that are related to euthanasia.
- The right to reject unwanted medical procedures.
- The right to commit suicide solely by one’s own acts.
- The right to commit suicide with the assistance of another’s.
- The right to authorize another to directly and intentionally kill the one seeking death.
The only “right” thus far recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court is that decreed in the Karen Quinlan case decided back in the 1970’s. In that case the Court recognized her right to die a natural death after all unwanted medical treatments had been withdrawn. It was a passive act, not a direct act of killing that was allowed. The participation by one human being in the direct act of killing another in the name of mercy has never been constitutionally legitimated by the Court.
THE MICHIGAN COURTS
We need to be very clear about the result of three Michigan court decisions. They are often skewed by Jack Kevorkian’s attorneys who, using staged theatrics along with emotional and jingoistic language, seek to excite our passions and thereby obfuscate our thinking on the issue. These decisions, they allege, struck down Michigan’s statute against assisted suicide on the merits of the main question. The reality is that these three Michigan courts ruled that Michigan’s statute forbidding assisted suicide was defective in that it declares assisted suicide to be a crime while at the same time (in the same piece of legislation) it seeks to establish a commission to determine the legality of assisted suicide. In other words, how can Michigan declare an act to be illegal while at the same time trying to find out whether it is legal or not?
But that is far from what Jack Kevorkian’s attorneys will tell you. They claim the decisions determined the constitutionality of activity based on the “right” to privacy, a right that these attorneys allege to be “more fundamental” than any of the other fundamental constitutional rights that we enjoy. We must keep in mind, however, that the only “right” so far recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court is the one in the Karen Quinlan case, namely the right to die a natural death after all unwanted medical treatments had been withdrawn. To date the direct and immediate killing of innocent human life, viz. the killing of someone not convicted of a crime, has not been found to be less destructive. Nor has it been found to be legally permissible simply because it is done in a medical manner.
TRANSCENDENT OR RELATIVE?
Transcendent values and moral norms were once thought to exist in the objective order. My seminary training was grounded upon those givens. Western liberalism has succeeded in relativizing them, declaring them to be subjective matters of personal taste not to be imposed upon the thinking of others. They have been privatized, the followers of John Stuart Mill’s philosophy being the chief architects of “privatizing” all human activity, even human life itself. Getting government off our backs is a slogan that appeals to the proponents of “privatized” killing.
Question: Is it “socialism” to recognize that we find our uniqueness, our individuality, our own personal identity, by belonging to a community, to a family? It seems to me that it takes a community to help an individual come into his or her own identity, specificity, and individuality. Personality is constituted and authenticated in the existential interdependency, in commonly shared love and care found in family and community social orders. And it takes individuals thus formed to constitute a community. How far, then, does “privatization” properly extend? Wherein lies socialism?
Culture, once upon a time, induced an automatic calling up in one’s conscience of what is right and what is wrong, good and evil – moral norms consensually held in the hearts and minds of Western culture’s folk. Human dignity and human rights were found and maintained in our interdependent social order. We are not, after all, merely a collection of individual and private monads who happen to live together by chance as a collection of persons. Abraham Lincoln, it seems to me, had some things to say against such notions.
Western liberalism has all but succeeded in eliminating these deeply ingrained and almost instinctive operative moral norms. Agnostic relativism and secularism are the philosophies of the day in our nation’s schools, colleges and universities. The controlling imperative in our nation’s institutions of learning may be fairly stated as: “No one has the right to apply any fundamental standards of judgment upon another.” Ironically, that very imperative does just that! The result is that everyone’s own personal whim, constitutionally protected under the rubric of his or her uninviolable “right of privacy”, is declared by liberalism to be morally and ethically good. Anyone’s opinion is just as valid as anyone else’s. This is a sort of “liberalism” unknown to those who identified themselves as liberals earlier in this century.
But without knowing, professing, or demanding that we live lives of good and not evil, how will we as a nation of people remain humane?
Pope John Paul II is disliked by many, for many different reasons. I daresay, however, that he is commonly disliked by most because of his insistence upon the commitment of men and women to a common good, to a set of operating principles that distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong, operating principles over which the Church exercises custodial care, whether or not they were generated within her bosom.
Because it was intolerable for her Founder, fragmenting indifferentism is anathema to Holy Mother Church. It is legitimate to ask why other major world religious bodies are splintering under Western liberalism’s influence. And it is additionally legitimate to inquire as to their commitments to universal moral imperatives as well as to whether or not they insist that their individual members do likewise. The fundamental ground upon which human society is built is at issue.
Our nation, the leading Western liberal democracy, exists now in a permissive garden of paradise filled with an array of Venus Fly-traps that are swallowing up its citizens. Abortion, drug addiction, violence, child-abuse, and a host of other social evils only attest to the existence of some malevolent underlying malady. If everything is permitted, anything can be had… and anything can result. That sounds to me like the very definition of nihilistic anarchy.
With a strong public sense of moral norms, our government cannot possess any other authority than that which derives from coercive power and force of such a consensus. Without any public sense of moral norms our government can wield unrestrained power over us. Who would judge its actions, and by what norms? Which is perhaps why today’s attitude engineers gravitate to the employment of governmental power, lacking any other ground upon which they might build any
persuasive case. The sudden self-annihilation of Communism, following as it did upon the destruction of Nazism, is now being followed by the implosion of our own Western Liberalism. The dynamic that runs through all three is the non-acceptance of a shared communal commitment to a set of moral imperatives by which we all operate from a shared transcendent understanding of what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil. History teaches us that when private
and social morality are divorced the hollow culture that remains collapses. Western liberals need to examine the ersatz paradise they have constructed for us in which to live in privacy. Is it any different from that earlier edifice men and women attempted to construct, the Tower of Babel? Are we not, today, forced to endure countless talking heads who are not in any real dialogue with each other while in front of television cameras?
Babel, we must remember, was destroyed because it was built upon the principle that man controls the route to God, not on the Church’s principle that God controls the way and the truth and the life in which man can find salvation. For Transcendents come down to us from above, not the other way around, however humiliating that truth may be to the arrogance of the untrammeled human mind.
HOW CONSTITUTIONAL IS THE RIGHT TO PRIVACY?
As we plod through the morass of murky thinking on the question of what is euphemistically phrased as “assisted suicide”, or “medicide” or other high sounding phrases that becloud the essential truth, one and only one question must be held in primary focus: Who has the right to kill? Who is licensed to take away a human life?
A Michigan Circuit Judge, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Cynthia Stephens, provides us with an example of loosy-goosy thinking. In her decision to strike down the Michigan Legislature’s law against assisted suicide she newly discovered yet another “right” to privacy in the United States Constitution, the right to kill one’s self. And having discovered that, she discovers yet another one, namely the “right” to have that “private” decision reinforced by
an assistant. Her opinion exemplifies the rush of some jurists to unearth newly found privacy rights flowing from the horrendously illogical decision in the Roe v. Wade abortion ruling. Legal scholars still shudder as they contemplate the floodgates to “privacy” opened by Roe v. Wade. The previously existing delicate tension between private autonomy and the common good has been hopelessly unbalanced ever since.
In addition Judge Stephens deliberately obfuscated the distinction between the choice to refuse treatment and the decision to take one’s life. And by extension, Judge Stephens now wants to move doctors, and specifically Jack Kevorkian, from dealing with healing, or the withdrawal thereof, to direct dealing in death.
Self-determination is not an absolute, as Her Honor would have us believe. We do not allow the right to self-determination and privacy to permit someone to own a slave, to employ child labor, or even to smoke a cigarette wherever we might wish. Restraints are put on human behavior and human autonomy when it comes to creating monopolies, price-fixing, employing people in occupational hazards, and so forth. Even traffic lights restricted Judge Stephen’s privacy rights and individual autonomy when she drove to work the day she handed down her decision.
Once you license someone to kill another person how will you ever be sure their request was fully deliberated and made in complete freedom from emotion or psychic compulsion? And how do you guarantee that family members, opting to commit euthanasia for one of their loved ones, make their choice free from selfish motives, conflicts of interest, or free of any and all mercenary intent?
Until Jack Kevorkian’s antics, our society licensed killing only by judicial magistrates, police officers, military personnel, and private citizens in self-defense against deadly aggression. Each and every instance was permitted only to protect our common good. Each and every instance was in the public interest and as a part of a community acting to protect itself. Private killing in the name of private rights has never been countenanced.
But Judge Stephens couldn’t be bothered by such precedents. Roe v. Wade’s acidic effects now work to extend the “right” to privately kill at both ends of the spectrum of human life.
Does this concern you? Does this matter at all? Or do we once again let the activists have the field while we concern ourselves with more homely matters? Another moment of truth stands before us.
The Friends of Death, the abortionists and mercy killers, through Jack Kevorkian and Geoffrey Fiegher, are promoting a newly discovered constitutional right, the so-called “right to die”. Did you ever read those words in our Declaration of Independence or Constitution? Nor have I. The “right to die” is a nice sounding phrase; sounds almost like the “right to life”. It also sounds like an absolute; ironically, moral relativists will grab on to such absolutist phrases whenever they can, having no moral structure within themselves or among themselves upon which to build their brave new laws.
So far, the United States Supreme Court hasn’t discovered the phrase “right to die” in our Constitution or in the books of legal writ containing its interpretations. Quite a few of these United States, however, have enacted laws making assisted suicide a crime. Mr. Fiegher would tell us those legislators were “right wing terrorist religious fanatics” bent upon depriving reasonable citizens of their right to die. His rhetoric is, of course, rubbish.
Back in the 1970’s the Karen Quinlan case was taken all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court distinguished between committing suicide (or assisting in that act) and the withdrawal of artificial life support systems. To withdraw artificial supports and let the patient be supported solely by nature is enormously different, said the Court, from deliberately acting to kill innocent life. Each of the States, asserted the Court, has an undeniable interest in the protection and preservation of all human life. And each State has the constitutional authority to proscribe as a crime the intentional killing of innocent human life, regardless of the motives of either the assisting killer or the person wishing to kill his or her self.
There is no “right to die” that the U.S. Supreme Court has found to be constitutional. We remain endowed by our Creator with something inalienable, namely life. And that which is inalienable can’t be taken away, or even by one’s own act, given away. Suicide is not simply the removal of life support systems. Suicide remains what it is, the intentional killing of a human life, no matter how many parties are participating in the act.
Once we start down the slippery slope, where will we stop? Does an emotionally depressed person have a “right to die”? Does a diagnosed schizophrenic have a “right to die”? A manic depressive? Does someone facing bankruptcy have a “right to die”? And if they do, and can’t bring themselves to pull a lever or a trigger, can they hire a surrogate to do it for them?
There are ultimately no boundaries to such a runaway path. The only control we have is to never step over the threshold of that door into the Abyss, the Friends of Death to the contrary notwithstanding.
THE RIGHT OF PRIVACY?
There is no absolute right to privacy when it comes to what one does with one’s own body. Take, for instance, prostitution. It is proscribed and prohibited. So far as I know, no judge has yet declared laws proscribing prostitution to be unconstitutional invasions of privacy; no judge has carried the Roe v. Wade myth that far. No court has yet allowed “consensual” sexual relations with members of one’s own family, or between adults and minors. The selling one’s own body parts has not been recognized as a logical constitutional descendent of the Roe v. Wade myth. No Court decision has ever acknowledged that we have an “absolute right” to do whatever we want to with our bodies.
Roe v. Wade did NOT employ absolutist and dogmatic reasoning; it did NOT declare that a woman has an “absolute right” to do with her body what she wishes (contrary to popular feminist rhetoric). Roe v. Wade DID declare that a state can have a compelling interest in preserving fetal life. Justice Harry Blackmun, in writing the majority opinion, specifically balked at the notion that one has an unlimited right to do with one’s body as one pleases.
Just because a state refuses to punish a suicide (all such punishment really succeeds only in punishing the surviving family of a suicide) it does not therefore automatically mean, as some would have us believe, that such a state is “declaring that assisted suicide is a right”.
In all of this emotional fluff that is being thrown up to cover over logic, where can one point to a history or tradition, in any legal jurisdiction, allowing assisted suicide? If it is such a fundamental “right”, where does one find it enacted in any body of laws anywhere?
The right to choose is not an absolute right, even though it is traditional dogma within the ACLU and the liberal community. Laws, after all, are designed to prevent certain choices, laws being enacted to preserve values and protect them from human choices.
And we must remember in all of the rhetoric that the purpose of any law, the purpose of any moral norm, the purpose of all such principles that regulate human behavior, is precisely that, to preserve certain values. And in order to preserve them the human will, our freedom of choice, and pro-choice libertines, must be restrained. We are not libertarians, we are an ordered democracy, a federal republic the citizens of which exist and inter-relate under the law. We live together in peace and
security under the rule of law. Only unrestrained tyrants want laws thrown off, particularly tyrants who are interested in being merchants of death. The one who wrote the line: “The first thing we must do is kill all the lawyers”, William Shakespeare, placed those words in the mouth of a would be tyrant. We should remember these things whenever we hear Jack Kevorkian spewing out his spurious ideas about what is legal and what is not, what is constitutional and what is not.
CATHOLICS AND EUTHANASIA
Earlier in this century, popes and Catholic moralists were telling us that the issues of abortion and mercy killing were intrinsically connected. You get one, you get the other. But back then Jack Kevorkian’s sociopathy was, as yet, unthinkable. I fear we were not paying close enough attention in those days. And I certainly didn’t see Roe v. Wade becoming Kevorkian v. Belief.
In all of the recent media attention to Kevorkian’s so- called “medicide” rhetoric, people of belief have been depicted as fanatics, terrorists, zealots, bigots, and Nazi’s. The choices of words and the coinage of phrases used by the Friends of Death repeat those employed by Pro-Choice advocates when they were first advocating abortion on demand.
In spite of it all, an occasional light shines in the darkness. Recently a letter to the editor writer was published in one of Michigan’s regional newspapers. In it Mr. Bob Cassey, a gentlemen from Beverly Hills, Michigan, took the paper’s columnists to task for belittling and trivializing Archbishop Adam Maida’s statement with regard to assisted suicide. Mr. Cassey’s thoughts are so good that they are worth quoting extensively here.
“In a world that measures worth by how much one possesses and how much one can do, the crucifix makes no sense. Christians follow a God who abhors suffering, who spend his life in a teaching and healing ministry, and who calls on his people to rid the world of suffering. Yet he demonstrated in his own life that the height of nobility is attained when we enter fully into the suffering that life thrusts on us, for only then do we break through to the glory of the
resurrection. Jesus didn’t have to go to Calvary, Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t have to go to Memphis, and Thomas More didn’t have to go to the Tower of London, except to be true to their truest selves. The same invitation is extended to each of us, because suffering and pain, while unnecessary and evil, are part of life in this broken world. We ultimately will triumph over suffering and pain, not by fleeing from them or sidestepping them, but by choosing the life option by embracing life at all costs.”
What a tremendous statement! Obviously the Christian Gospel has reached him, as well as the meaning of Easter. That such a statement of faith would be published in the particular newspaper in question testifies to either one of two things:
- the paper’s editorial board is guilty of a fortuitous oversight, or
- God still doth His wonders make.
During an argument it is helpful occasionally to pay some attention to what is not being said. It helps to put in context what is being said.
In the current public debate over whether or not assisted suicide should be declared lawful, or indeed a “constitutional right” as Kevorkian supporters advocate, we should observe that they say little if anything about what is happening in Holland. Oh, they’ll tell you that the Netherlanders allow assisted suicide, but beyond that they don’t say much.
The Dutch, you see, first allowed assisted suicide when absolutely horrific cases of human suffering were put into the public’s consciousness. It is the same process that started the movement to legalize abortion on demand. We were treated to disgusting cases of incest, agonizing instances of dirty, back- alley abortion dens, and an array of victims of rape. With these instances we were argued into legalizing “necessary” abortions. The result was a considerable move away from the previous legal status of abortion. Prior to Roe v. Wade every State in our Union had laws against such abortions.
The move from “absolutely necessary” abortions to the present situation of abortion on demand was a shift not simply in degree but in the very nature of our public policy. The so-called “right to privacy” was raised to the level wherein it superseded all other rights; it now has the status of dogma. We now have abortion on demand as a form of birth control, a situation far removed from the original argument that urged us to allow abortions only in cases of rape and incest.
At the present time we are again being subjected to the same insidious strategy, only this time we are being urged to allow humane and necessary assisted suicides, or “medicides” as Jack Kevorkian is fond of calling them. But what isn’t talked about is the fact that studies conducted by the Dutch government have shown that hundreds of “patients” each year are killed in Holland without their own request, they being too old, handicapped or infirm to make that request.
Furthermore there is great pressure in Holland to set criteria when handicapped newborns are to be “terminated”. One wonders how strenuously and effectively both classes of persons can protest against being “mercifully” terminated. Clearly that is a state of things quite beyond the present advocacy position of Jack Kevorkian, one in which he modestly argues (now) that the “terminally ill” have a fundamental constitutional right not only to suicide but also
to be assisted in suicide. What the assisted suicide proponents are not talking about are barriers against involuntary “euthanasia” and the safeguards against it, safeguards which evidently have broken down in Holland. The reason they aren’t talking about these concerns is because they know full well that there are really no effective barriers once you involve others, however permissibly, in the act of killing.
We should all be clear about what will develop once assisted suicide is allowed “only” in extreme and desperate cases. The inexorable developments will be advanced on the argument that it is unfair to discriminate solely on