Assisted or not, suicide is an individual choice

Elton Wong

I read in the paper yesterday that Dr. Kevorkian is on trial again. Although he has assisted in over 130 suicides since 1990, he has never been convicted.

What makes this latest trial significant is the charge: murder rather than assisting suicide.

This legal distinction rests upon the fact that in this case Kevorkian actually administered the injections to his paralyzed patient himself, rather than merely supplying and arranging the lethal apparatus and leaving the patient to push the button.

This distinction is meaningless, morally if not legally. As I know next to nothing about law, my position will be argued on moral grounds.

To examine assisted suicide, we must first examine suicide. Is suicide sometimes morally permissible?

Kevorkian’s patient, Tom Youk, was suffering from terminal Lou Gehrig’s disease, which slowly degrades the nervous system, causing paralysis and eventual death.

Mr. Youk’s case was so advanced that he was having difficulty breathing, and he was afraid of choking on his own saliva. Had he not decided to end his life, his remaining days would certainly have been more terrible that most of us can appreciate.

We cannot reasonably say that hastening one’s own death in such a situation is immoral.

To do so would be to condemn the terminally ill to a slow, painful, psychologically tormenting death. We must respect the autonomy and the free will of individuals in such dire circumstances. We must recognize the right of bodily self-determination.

It is even doubtful if the word “suicide” is applicable. Tom Youk did not want to die, he wanted to end his suffering.

The only way he could achieve this end was by ending his life. If he could have ended his suffering some other way, he would have done that instead.

His decision to end his life was a means to an end, not an end in itself. If we try hard enough to put ourselves in Mr. Youk’s shoes, we can see that his decision was reasonable and understandable.

Thus, we can see that in some cases, it is morally permissible for a person to end his or her own life, especially when great suffering will be avoided by doing so.

So what then about “assisted suicide?” Did Dr. Kevorkian commit a moral wrong (temporarily ignoring the most recent case) when he supplied his apparatus to terminally ill patients? This is a more complicated question.

However, we can see that much of the criticism leveled at Kevorkian is irrelevant once we realize that Kevorkian was not truly acting as a moral agent when he assisted in those “suicides.”

He was simply carrying out the will of his patients. If the will of his patients was not immoral, then the actions of Kevorkian were not of moral significance.

He, like any physician, was an instrument in the hands of his patients. He did not encourage the termination of life; he argued with each of his patients against it. But he realized that it was ultimately the patient’s decision to make.

Given this, the question of who pushed the button on the apparatus is reduced to a triviality. Kevorkian did nothing wrong when he administered injections to Mr. Youk, and he did nothing wrong when he supplied his patients with his grim mechanism.

In every case he was carrying out the (morally permissible) will of others. In each case, his patients were faced with inevitable, painful death.

In each case, his patients were of sound mind. In the current case, Youk was physically incapable of pushing a button, so he asked Kevorkian to do it for him. This makes no moral difference.

At worst, Kevorkian’s actions were morally neutral. At best, his actions brought about good by diminishing the suffering of people who wanted to die in a painless and dignified manner.

Kevorkian was right to say that “a vicious will and a vicious act” are needed for a crime. To lump Kevorkian in the same category as Charles Manson and Jeffrey Dahmer is simply ludicrous and reveals the grave failings of our legal system.

Youk ended his own life, using Kevorkian as his instrument. Jack Kevorkian did not kill Tom Youk, and neither man did anything wrong.

If anything, Kevorkian should be praised for his scrupulous attitude and courage in the face of adversity.

Elton Wong is a sophomore in biology from Ames.