Friday, June 3, 2011

Kevorkian is dead. Long live Kevorkian.

Controversial figure Jack Kevorkian died today, at age 83, joining the 130 patients whom he helped end their life journeys. Most of the legitimate, intelligent "controversy" about euthanasia centers around making sure that adequate safeguards are put in place so that terminally ill patients make an informed and mentally competent decision when it comes to ending one's own life. However, in many places where euthanasia, in the form of physician assisted suicide, is legally permitted, there are elaborate safeguards. You can't just break up with your girlfriend at age 18, get drunk, and go down to the suicide drive-thru for your shot of cyanide. You have to be a terminally ill patient in a sound state of mind, and often have to wait months. Now then, Kevorkian and some of his sympathizers thought this was too much of a burden for very sick, pain-wracked patients, and they sought short-cuts. Reasonable people can disagree on the types of safeguards which should be in place, as a matter of public policy.

However, there are also the unreasonable, unintelligent objections to suicide. These often come, unsurprisingly, from absolutist religious fanatics, who seem to believe that suicide is not permitted under any circumstances. The actual number of bible verses relating to suicide are surprisingly slim, and as usual, quite vague. Some try to claim that the body is a temple and killing oneself defiles that temple, as per passages like 1 Cor 3:17. However, it's not clear why this would defile the body any more than natural death. From a Jewish perspective, dead bodies were unclean, and it didn't particularly matter how the body died. Besides, lots of things might theoretically defile the body, such as shaking hands with a gentile, or masturbating. Is suicide in the same trivial category as these types of deeds?

Others say that suicide is wrong because it is killing, and the so-called ten commandments prohibit killing. Of course, they don't really prohibit all killing. We still kill in war, and self-defense, and even in capital punishment, which is heartily endorsed by the same bible that supposedly commands us not to kill. It is conceivable that people could interpret suicide in terms of administering capital punishment to oneself, as per a variety of biblical directives which call for capital punishment of people committing minor offenses, up to and including gathering sticks on the Sabbath, blasphemy, etc.

Some try to put words in the Bible's mouth and say that what it really means is that you aren't supposed to kill innocent people for no reason. However, nobody is truly innocent, and terminally ill people certainly have reasons. At the very least, we must admit that killing of oneself is quite different than killing of a non-consenting other.

Consider the analogy to stealing. The same commandments say we are not supposed to steal. However, is it stealing when you say it is OK? Is it stealing when you do it to yourself. Clearly, no. If someone takes your money then it's stealing. If you give your money away freely then nobody would say that this donation amounts to "stealing from yourself".

Comparing then with killing, when you kill someone else you steal that person's life. However, you can't really steal from yourself, in the same way, as we just explained, because you have given at least a measure of consent, whereas an outside individual may not have.

One might similarly take the view that killing oneself can be a form of justifiable defense, or even a form of warfare, both of which are traditionally exempted from prohibitions against killing. In the first case, one might argue that killing oneself was defending oneself and one's quality of life against mortal attack by the ravages of disease, and pain. It is conceivable that one might look terminal diseases as a form of war, declared by nature against one's own body. Killing is sometimes justified in war, and that killing might include destruction of oneself, to prevent the enemies of disease and ill-health from making further gains on the battlefield.

Of course, if you disagree with anything, then you certainly shouldn't do it. You are even free to attempt to persuade others not to do it. For the record, I am not advocating that people do it, generally, because, aside from the terminally ill, most of us have plenty to live for. If this life is the only one we get, contrary to the wishful thinking of many religious people, then we want to make sure we get the most we can out of it. However, if one is satisfied with what one has gotten out of life already and now the burdens of life have become too heavy, that is something that the individual will have to address. That was what Kevorkian, in his own way was saying, which is why I say, though "Kevorkian is dead. Long live Kevorkian" in terms of his idealism.

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