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Humanists: Momentarily Dazed and Confused, or What?


Marta Russell

Being

a veteran of the war for truth during the Kevorkian era of the assisted suicide

debates, it astounds me when I see that some companions battling for social

justice are still entangled in the Kevorkian-as-humanist illusion web. Someone

emailed me recently that before Kevorkian was jailed they saw an all-smiles Tom

Cruise go over to Kevorkian at a Hollywood party and pat him on the back.

Vonnegut fantasizes about being guided into and back from death by Jack and his

death machine in “God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian.” Of course, Kevorkian is the

number one martyr for the Hemlock Society which recently aired the video version

of "Final Exit" on Oregon public access TV. Not Dead Yet, which has

taken the lead in opposing Kevorkian, calls the Hemlockers “the 4 W’s: the

White, Well-off, Worried, and Well.” Organizer Diane Coleman explains “they

[Hemlockers] don’t care how many of our people are encouraged—even

pressured—to die, so long as they themselves can have the security of a clean,

neat, sanitized suicide at the hands of a medical professional.” Despite the

fact that Jack has been stripped of his doctorhood in several states and most

recently, jailed for murder, some believers hold onto the image of Kevorkian as

a symbol of humanism.

It

follows that my question must be, does Kevorkian have the humanists fooled or

what? Or maybe I misunderstand what humanism is. Is it humanistic, for instance,

to be willing to step in and help a disabled person die rather than provide the

means to live? Is it humanistic (or even defensible) to assist an obviously

depressed 43-year-old woman to her death who was diagnosed with a nonterminal

but impairing condition and then abandoned by a husband who also took her

children away from her? That is what Kevorkian did to the vulnerable Sherry

Miller who needed anti-depressants and a good lawyer, not a visit with Dr.

Death.

Is

it humanistic to assist a quadriplegic to his death, do a botched job taking out

his kidneys, and then dump him at a hospital doorstep? That is what Kevorkian

did to Joseph Tushkowski. The Oakland County’s medical examiner called

Tushkowski’s body a "scene from a slaughterhouse." For the

uninformed, Kevorkian’s self-stated goal (Prescription Medicide) is to establish

a "new specialty" of obitiatry, that is medical killing, and to carry

out human experimentation and transplantations in death centers he planned to

set up all over the country. Harvesting Joseph’s organs must have been practice

for this scheme.

Is

it humanistic to assist in the suicide of a disabled man who has been waiting

for nine agonizing months for a wheelchair from his horrible HMO? That is what

Kevorkian did to Matt Johnson. Matt’s wheelchair came the day after Kevorkian’s

visit – one day too late to free him from his seemingly permanent bed-ridden

state and the actual permanent state of death.

Is

it humanistic for a doctor to fatally inject a man with whom the doctor has only

had two meetings within the 48 hours before he kills him? When asked later by

the Oakland Press what Youk’s last words had been, Kevorkian responded, "I

don’t know. I never understood a thing he said." That was Thomas Youk’s

"dignified" death at the hands of this “understanding” and

“compassionate” administrator of death.

Is

it humanistic to aid in the death of a man whose greatest fear is that he will

be forced to live in a rat infested nursing home? That was a reason Wallace

Spolar gave when he called on Kevorkian and engaged his services.

Published

reports and court records indicate that 66 of Kevorkian’s 93

"patients" did not fall within the generally described category of

terminally ill (life expectancy of six months or less). Janet Adkins, who had

recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, was reported to have played tennis

the week before her appointment with Kevorkian. Judith Curren had chronic

fatigue, was depressed and had filed domestic abuse charges against her husband

two weeks before her killing. Yet another was a depressed battered wife who did

not have Multiple Sclerosis as claimed. Kevorkian, who defines terminal illness

as "any disease that curtails life even for a day," aided all these

people into the irreversible state of death.

Is

it humanist to assisted people to a premature death when they suffer ugly

economic circumstances and social conditions and need help from society to get

through a difficult time. Isn’t it humanistic, rather, to fight for resources

and social justice and to avoid death as the social "solution"?

Why

is it that some people are so quick to join the death-is-the-answer position

when it comes to disablement and don’t seem to be able to see disability as a

neutral factor in life? Why is disability so charged for them? I can only

surmise that these nondisabled people fear disablement so much that they

automatically assume that they are doing us a favor by supporting our right to

die. But, in a social justice context, if the right to die was an equal

opportunity matter and not specifically directed at those with chronic

conditions, then the advocates would give healthy 20 year olds the same right to

die too, wouldn’t they?

Well-informed

individuals on other social justice issues have come up to me on more than one

occasion and said, “I just don’t see how you do it. I couldn’t do it” -

meaning get on with my life “in spite of” my disability. These people seem

to think that they could not accept life with a disability and make projections

about what they could or would not do if they were in my shoes, but this is

often just a first take on a complex continuum of experience. For instance, I

have quadriplegic friends who did contemplate suicide their first weeks of

disablement but are glad that the option of physician assisted death wasn’t

available because they got over their depressions, adjusted to the disability,

and are living out their lives being a comedian, a spouse, and/or a parent. A

good friend of mine has lived with Multiple Sclerosis for about a decade now.

Her son just finished college.

Further,

ableist and individualist projections about the experience of disablement are a

complete avoidance of the headier collective issues at stake. Why don’t these

same people ask me “are disabled people getting the health care and services

that they need?” Don’t they know money is being valued over people in the

health care system? Don’t they know people are still forced into nursing homes

against their will? Don’t they also know about the role of race and poverty

discrimination in the health care system? How about acknowledging that ableism

plays a role similar to race and class?

In

a “Written Statement to Court,” Aug. 17, 1990, Kevorkian made the statement,

"The voluntary self-elimination of individuals and mortally diseased or

crippled lives taken collectively can only enhance preservation of public health

and welfare." Kevorkian, in other words, presented an ableist economic

argument for singling out and killing disabled people.

What

well-intentioned humanists miss, it seems, is that economics are in the

background of the "right to die" movement – a fact which even Derek

Humphry, co-founder of the Hemlock Society, the oldest and largest

pro-euthanasia/assisted suicide group, acknowledges. In his latest book,

"Freedom to Die – People, Politics and the Right to Die Movement,"

Humphry says it will be the unspoken argument for assisted suicide – cost

containment – that will ensure the eventual passage of laws legalizing assisted

suicide and euthanasia. In “Final Exit,” Humphry predicted legalization

would encourage greater ‘tolerance’ of the suicide of ‘the handicapped.’

It

is a fact that the 9th Circuit (San Francisco) court’s decision in support of

physician-assisted suicide specifically targeted the handicapped as

"beneficiaries." It stated that it may be acceptable for

"competent, terminally ill adults to take the economic welfare of their

families and loved ones into consideration" when deciding whether to live

or die, and it defended the use of assisted suicide to control medical costs. In

some quarters, quadriplegia has been designated as a terminal illness.

Who

are the other stake holders? The Oregon assisted suicide bill was authored by an

HMO executive. Vice President Barbara Coombs-Lee of Ethix Corp., was chief

petitioner of the Measure which created Oregon’s law legalizing

physician-assisted death. But media reports concerning Coombs-Lee failed to make

much of her professional occupation within a health insurance group. She was

portrayed as a passionate ideologue who cared only for things like "patient

autonomy," an end to "intolerable pain," and offering "death

with dignity." Coombs-Lee’s role as a financially motivated health industry

hatchet woman was carefully buried throughout the 1994 campaign. Ethix Corp.

embraced the new "treatment,” stating that they "welcome broad

coverage for assisted suicide in a medical economic system already

burdened." A lethal dose in Oregon costs only $35 to $50; compare that to

one day’s stay in a hospital, about $1,000.

Managed

care corporations do manipulate fees to control gatekeeper physicians’

approval of expenditures on patients. Doctors are given bonuses for keeping

costs low and often find their contracts revoked when they do not conform to HMO

administrators’ directives. Dr. Linda Peeno, a physician who found herself in

such a predicament, testified before the House Commerce Committee (May 30, 1996)

"…I wish to begin by making a public confession. In the spring of 1987,

as a physician, I caused the death of a man … Although this was known to many

people, I have not been taken before any court of law or called to account for

this in any professional or public forum. In fact, just the opposite occurred: I

was ‘rewarded’ for this. It brought me an improved reputation in my job, and

contributed to my advancement afterwards. Not only did I demonstrate I could do

what was expected of me, I exemplified the "good" company doctor: I

saved a half million dollars!"

If

Kevorkian’s actions accurately describes humanism then humanism is aligned

with the bourgeois eugenicists, social Darwinists, corporate bean counters, and

Malthusian population control zealots who target disabled lives as lives not

worth living and label us a burden on society and their bottom lines.

Could

liberal court decisions be used for their purposes? Of course! The issue of

physician-assisted suicide must be viewed within the context of an economic

order which is overriding public welfare and a health care system which is

entrenched in profit making. Millions of Americans are uninsured or

under-insured and in need of quality health care. Some insured have already

found themselves denied life-giving treatments because HMO health care rationing

is a real, not an imaginary, thing. Some may have found themselves without the

cash to pay for the treatment or to pay a lawyer to intervene. Most anyone can

become depressed because they do not want to be a burden on the family. Yet one

may not be ready to die but see no other way out.

Or

perhaps the family might decide such a member is too burdensome and join the

Hemlock society. The Hemlock Society issued a widely ignored press release which

asked that family members and other "agents" be able to procure court

orders to kill "a demented parent, a suffering severely disabled spouse, or

a child" if their lives are "too burdensome to continue." That’s

involuntary euthanasia. According to the National Elder Abuse Incidence Study

conducted by the Administration on Aging, several hundred thousand elderly

Americans are abused by family members each year in this country. The FBI

reports that 21.2 % of homicides of individuals age 50 and over are committed by

family members. Humphry’s new video provides detailed information on how to

disguise murders of disabled and elderly people as suicides.

Would

Kevorkian at your doorstep, then, look like a savior or a guy who was furthering

his future at the expense of yours?

The

genuine humanists, it seems, are not the ones joining the death culture. Rather,

they are the ones fighting for a disability sensitive universal health care

system, a national in-home care program like MICASSA (Medicaid Community

Attendant Services and Supports Act), living wages, and an income floor beneath

which no one falls. They are the ones calling for enforcement of civil and human

rights and for imposing serious penalties on those who commit domestic violence.

They are the ones searching for the means to build an economy which supports

people’s needs over capitalist accumulation.

Life

is better than death, I believe, if only because it is less boring, and

because it has fresh peaches in it.

-Alice

Walker