Thursday, May 31, 2007

Who Owns Your Life?

By Alan Burkhart

With the pending release of Jack "Doctor Death" Kevorkian from prison, I found myself thinking back to a movie from the early 80's titled "Whose Life is it, Anyway?" The film starred Richard Dreyfuss as a sculptor who was paralyzed from the neck down in an auto accident. In the movie, Dreyfuss' character is faced with the prospect of a life of dependency, unable to pursue his dreams or live with even a shred of dignity.

Dreyfuss requests that his life support be switched off, and a dramatic court battle ensues. He has both allies and opponents, including a doctor who is determined to stop him from ending his life. In the event that you haven’t seen the movie, I won’t spoil it for you by telling you how it ends. It’ll tug the strings of the coldest heart.

Dr. Kevorkian, during his heyday as both an advocate and a facilitator of physician - assisted suicide, stirred the nation’s emotional stew pot to the boiling point. Hounded like Frankenstein’s monster by some and heralded as a hero by others, Jack Kevorkian left his mark on society before being sent off to prison for the death of Thomas Youk of Michigan.

Unfortunately, Kevorkian may be his own worst enemy as well as that of those who seek to legalize assisted suicide. While he is passionate and sincere in his beliefs, he appears a bit unbalanced. The man promised “death with dignity.” But he repeatedly dumped the bodies of his customers at hospitals and morgues, and sometimes left them in the motel rooms where he performed the procedure. His actions made him appear to be less an angel of mercy than a dangerously eccentric old man with a penchant for playing doctor.

While he has promised not to perform any more assisted suicides, he’s also plainly stated that he intends to busy himself as an advocate for the procedure. If he succeeds again in bringing the issue to the front burner, it should be an interesting debate. As Dreyfuss’ character asks in the movie: “Whose life is it?”

Whose indeed?

Oregon is presently the only state that allows physician-assisted suicide, and there is much red tape involved. I can see why it’d be that way. Death is after all, rather final. Opponents have struck down attempts to legalize assisted suicide in several states, including Hawaii, Wisconsin, Washington, California, Michigan and Maine.

In the USA, unassisted suicide is technically legal, although you're subject to being locked away for your own protection if you try to off yourself and fail. Assisted suicide however, is another can of worms altogether. During the reign of former Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Bush Administration sought to overturn Oregon's assisted suicide law. The argument, in a nutshell, was that the prescribing of controlled substances (prescription drugs) to cause death is not a legitimate medical procedure. Ashcroft's goal was to revoke the license of any Oregon physician who prescribed drugs to end a life. So much for states' rights.

The battle continued when Alberto Gonzales replaced Ashcroft, and finally ended (for the moment, at least) in 2006 when the US Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of the state of Oregon. This is one of the few times I have agreed with the liberal side of the SCOTUS - Thomas, Scalia and Roberts were the three dissenters. The decision to legalize assisted suicide is now up to each state, and that is as it should be.

Legal issues aside, there are two sides to the debate: The humanist view that assisted suicide is a personal decision, and the moralistic view that any form of suicide is (ahem) dead wrong.

From a purely humanist standpoint, one might conclude that each person owns his or her life. We create living wills so that a family member has the power to “pull the plug” if we become permanently incapacitated. How is it then, that a doctor can be authorized to disable a life support device when I’m a vegetable, but cannot enable a device to stop my heart under other circumstances? In both cases, it is a matter of a physician flipping a switch or prescribing a drug to end a life.

From a moralistic standpoint, the Christian Bible speaks clearly in the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not kill.” It doesn’t differentiate between killing yourself and killing someone else. Christians are taught that life is a gift from God, and our lives and bodies are not our own, but God’s. To end that life against God’s design is therefore a violation of God’s will.

Contrary to the misconceptions of many Christians, suicide is not an automatic trip to Hell. According to the Scriptures, there are two unpardonable sins: Rejecting Christ as Savior and blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. So, while one would doubtlessly have to answer for ending one's life outside of God's will, it is still possible to be a "client" of Dr. Kevorkian and enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Unlikely perhaps, but possible.

Islam on the other hand encourages one to kill himself and others in the name of Allah. Suicide bombers are supposedly rewarded with 72 virgins for all eternity. I can’t help but wonder; now that Islam is encouraging females to become suicide bombers, does this mean they need more virgins in Mohammed’s version of paradise? Just curious.

But whose life is it?

Should someone decide that life is unbearable, that person can end his life in any number of ways. Whether or not one carries through with a death wish depends largely upon one's ideology. Christians believe that a worse fate (Hell) is likely if one commits suicide. Atheists see death as the gateway to oblivion ("we're just mammals"). Radical Islam thinks it’s a free pass to a heavenly whore house, provided that you take a few infidels with you when you explode.

In a free society, the decision to live or die should rest with the individual. Only then can a person suffering from a terminal illness be assured of the right to make a decision based upon his or her own convictions. Personally, I feel that we should have the legal right to end our lives with the assistance of a licensed physician. How I live, or end, my life is my business. I must therefore extend that courtesy to those who do not share my beliefs, and I expect the same courtesy in return.

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