[Sisterlife, Spring 1991]
On June 4, 1990, Jack Kevorkian attached Alzheimer’s patient Janet Adkins to a homemade contraption in his 1968 VW bus, then watched her push the activating button that made her die.
Public reaction was swift and generally negative. Judge Alice Gilbert, in barring Kevorkian from ever again using the device, charged that he "flagrantly violated" all standards of medical practice. She added that through arrogant and self‑promoting "bizarre behavior" Kevorkian revealed that "his real goal is self service rather than patient service." Kevorkian’s lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger, responded with an admirable non‑sequitur: he claimed that Gilbert is "taking up the standard of fanatical anti‑abortionists, people who wish to perpetuate suffering." As far as we know, the Kevorkian machine does not perform abortions.
The appearance of pro‑life activists in the movement against euthanasia has been confusing to many. Opposing euthanasia does not seem to give opportunity for outlawing contraceptives, frowning on sex, keeping women out of jobs, or forced childbearing, goals assumed to be central to the pro‑life movement. Yet there is a connection. Both abortion and euthanasia make helpless people die.
Dying is not, in itself, the activity that pro‑lifers so strenuously oppose. Death naturally occurs along the entire spectrum of life, from the earliest miscarriages to the centenarian’s last breath. The objectionable activity is making people die: people who may be small, weak, or disabled, but are not dying; people who cannot defend or speak for themselves. The objection is to creating an ever‑widening class of unpersons, persons unwanted or imperfect, and imposing on those persons a duty to die.
Consider the following cases. While Nancy Cruzan was dying, the staff at Missouri Rehabilitation Center continued to insist that she was no vegetable. They had seen her smile at funny stories, cry when a visitor left, and indicate pain with her menstrual periods. She was not living on machines: a feeding tube had been inserted years before only to replace spoon feeding and make her care easier. An activist present during those days of dying commented, "It was like one of those horror movies where everybody in the town knows something, but nobody can get word out to the outside world." Information about Nancy’s true condition was persistently blacked out, while the staff endured the nightmare of watching her die.
In a horrible deja vu, another disabled woman at the Center has been selected for the same fate. Twenty‑year‑old Christine Busalacchi’s condition is improving: she waves, smiles, objects to having her teeth brushed, vocalizes to indicate TV preferences, and very much enjoys visits from young men. This is not enough for her father, who visits her seldom (and then sometimes accompanied by TV cameras) and, we are told, stands to inherit $51,000 from her estate. Pete Busalacchi does not have the "clear and convincing evidence" necessary to have her starved in Missouri, so he is trying to have her moved to Minnesota where the standard is less stringent.
Dr. Ronald Cranford, the euthanasia advocate who hopes to help Pete Busalacchi "take care" of Christine when she is brought to Minnesota, had a similar case in 1979. Sgt. David Mack was shot in the line of duty as a policeman, and Cranford diagnosed him as "definitely… in a persistent vegetative state…never [to] regain cognitive, sapient functioning…never [to] be aware of his condition." Twenty months after the shooting Mack woke up, and eventually regained nearly all his mental ability. When asked by a reporter how he felt, he spelled out on his letter board, "Speechless!"
Similar stories recur. Cancer patient Yolanda Blake was hospitalized last November 30 after experiencing severe bleeding. Despite the insistence of her sister and of the friend who held her power of attorney, the hospital refused to leave in place a feeding tube or a catheter, and on December 14 the county judge ruled in the hospital’s favor that Blake should be allowed to "die with dignity". On December 15 Blake woke up. When asked if she wanted to live, she responded "Of course I do!"
Richard Routh, 42, was hospitalized with head injuries after a motorcycle accident. He had learned to signal "yes" and "no", could smile and laugh at jokes, when his parents and doctors decided to have him starved. A nurse’s aide says that as they stood by the bedside discussing the starvation decision, Routh shook his head "no". Though the coroner’s report says he died of head injuries, he had lost thirty pounds during the hospitalization. The autopsy showed that he had not been given painkillers to ease the pain of starvation.
Washington State Senator Ray Moore represents more clearly than most the views of those who believe the disabled should want to die. He supported that state’s Initiative 119, which would allow a doctor to give a poisonous injection to a terminally ill patient requesting it; he believes that his mother would have benefited from such a service. He says that many people feel medical professionals profit "indecently" by caring for the dying, and we must grant that patience in the face of natural death can have a detrimental financial effect on the estate. But perhaps Moore is most honest when he says, "there is a growing aggravation with the sights and smells of hospitals and nursing homes."
It has been observed that sick and wounded animals do not commit suicide; when they are "put to sleep", it is to ease the pain of their owners. We may be horrified to contemplate life as a paraplegic, or brain‑damaged, or unable to chew our own food. Yet once we are there, who is to say that the bits of life we still hold may not be incomparably sweet? The sound of a loved voice filtering through dim consciousness, the sweet breeze when windows are first opened in the spring, a long afternoon in the sun, may become precious tokens, eagerly held. A generation who once pondered the possibility of "alternate states of consciousness" should be especially sensitive here. Rita Greene has been in an unconscious state for forty years; Claire Norton, the nurse who has cared for her throughout those years, speaks of Rita as "a saint" whose life represents "a tremendous amount of mystery." Who can prove her wrong?
Kevorkian’s lawyer misunderstands. Pro‑lifers do not wish to perpetuate suffering. We do not wish to prolong dying. But when people aren’t dying‑‑when they are only disabled or recovering or even merely old‑‑we want to offer them loving support till the end. It may not make for a neat, tidy society where everyone is productive and attractive. But it does make for the only kind of humane and just society that we can imagine.