WASHINGTONA personal experience recently reaffirmed my conviction that the government, which is sometimes the mechanism by which my next-door neighbor expropriates my free will, should not prolong a persons suffering against his or her own wishes.
A couple of months ago, I underwent surgery. The operation caused traumatic complications that only now, after undergoing surgery for a second time, have started to give way to a process of recovery. For five weeks, I was virtually disabled; I spent my time grappling with excruciating pain and the fear that, if my condition became irreversible, few of my actions in the future would be really free.
A few things kept me going. My wife, who witnessedbut was never paralyzed bysome shocking scenes, was one of them. Also, for reasons that remain mysterious to me, certain literature lifted my spirits when I was able to concentrate. The Psychiatrist, a short story by Machado de Assis, the 19th-century Brazilian writer, had a therapeutic effect. It is the tale of a physician who locks up an entire town in a mental asylum in the name of science. I also drew inspiration from Albert J. Nocks biography of Thomas Jefferson, which refers to the great Americans distrust of the medical profession (the judicious ... physician should ... (simply assist) the salutary effort which nature makes to re-establish the disordered functions).
But there was one other thing that kept me going: the idea of death as relief. I remember thinking what a powerful psychological effect the legalization of euthanasia would have on suffering patients if they knew that, ultimately, putting a stop to it all with minimal suffering and professional help was an option.
I was not surprised to learn that in Oregon, the only state in the U.S. where assisted suicide has been decriminalized, just 300 patients have taken that route in the last 10 years. In Switzerland, which joins the Netherlands and Belgium as the only countries where assisted suicide is legal, the numbers are proportionately higherbut only because the dignified solution is also open to foreigners.
Other nationsUruguay, for example, where a judge may pardon a killer if the homicide is pious and has been committed with the victims consenthave allowed sufficient cracks in the legal system to leave the matter open to interpretation. But, for the most part, euthanasia remains a taboo.
Two reasons account for this situation. One is a tradition inaugurated by Hippocrates, whose original oath rejected euthanasia. The medical profession continues to swear something similar to that oath today. The second, more important, reason is religious. The Judeo-Christian legacy weighs heavily against euthanasia, although there are proponents of assisted suicide among certain branches of Protestantism, including some Methodists and Episcopalians. Among polytheistic beliefs, Hinduism is also inclined against euthanasia, although in some circumstances a terminally ill person can be assisted because the avatars are thought to be ready to take him.
The religious argument against euthanasiathat it violates the sanctity of lifecontradicts the single most powerful premise of the Judeo-Christian tradition: that God gives every person free will. Under a spiritual guise, it amounts to saying that the endthe preservation of a live body that has been rendered uselessjustifies the means, prolonging the torment that that body inflicts on the patients spirit. Finally, it undermines the belief that the spirit outlives the body, conferring sanctity on the useless body rather than on the spirit desperate to liberate itself from the suffering.
Jack Kevorkian, the doctor who assisted with the suicide of terminally ill patients and served eight years in prison for those crimes, was convicted under a law that never should have been enacted. We would do no good to our civilization if we reacted to Kevorkians return to society by simply dismissing him as a nutty has been or taking refuge in the disgust we may feel at the videotape he sent to 60 Minutes in 1998the one that triggered his prosecution.
Kevorkian became both a celebrity and a criminal because the law made him one. His reappearance in society reminds us that his uncomfortable cause continues to be just. The quicker the law moves in the direction of justice on this profoundly moral issue, the sooner we will prevent future Kevorkiansboth the celebrity types and those who perform clandestine euthanasia in so many countries today.