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Posted on Sun, Jun 19, 2011 : 6:43 a.m.

Civil disobedience over a bad law were at core of Jack Kevorkian's assisted suicides

By Guest Column

Reading of Jack Kevorkian's death brings back memories of his conviction for murder and delivery of a controlled substance. I found the conviction troubling, but also disturbing was the imposition of the maximum sentence upon a person engaged in civil disobedience.

Many speak of a right to peaceful disobedience. Of course, there is no such right. It is merely a tradition of lenience for people who are willing to openly break a law out of allegiance to higher principles. That difference aside, I think we all agree that civil disobedience is a useful mechanism for drawing attention to bad law. The idea is to challenge authorities to enforce a law under circumstances that highlight its unjustness. I presume we also concur that behavior can qualify as civil disobedience even when we don’t agree that the cited higher principles trump the targeted laws.

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Will Warner

Dr. Kevorkian's conduct over more than a decade amounted to what was a clear case of classic civil disobedience. This is so because he acted openly and at great risk to himself, without personal gain, in a morally creditable way, in an attempt to change what he and others saw as ethically indefensible law -- that which criminalized assisted suicide. But the doctor was (eventually) convicted and the judge in the case handed down the maximum sentence, hardly in the tradition of lenience for civil disobedience.

Worse than this, the conviction was obtained only by hiding the full story from the jury. The prosecutor clearly feared that a fully informed jury would apprehend the tragic, human aspects of the case, realize that Kevorkian’s "crimes" involved no victim, and acquit. Two previous juries had done exactly that, so this prosecutor took no chances. Even though the most obvious charge was that of assisting a suicide, the prosecutor dropped that one. The judge had ruled that Kevorkian could counter indictments for assisting suicide by placing his actions in context for the jury. Thus, the jury would learn the whole story and likely acquit on the murder and delivery charges as well.

So there were two principled courses available to the prosecutor. If he was the stripe of man who believed that "the law is the law," he should have pursued every charge he thought Kevorkian guilty of and let the verdicts fall where they may. If, instead, he believed in prosecutorial discretion, he should have used it to drop all charges because, as his maneuverings reveal, he knew that he could not obtain a conviction from a jury in full possession of the facts.

Bent on conviction, however, the prosecutor eschewed both honorable courses. He dropped the assisted suicide charge as his only means of keeping the jury in the dark, thus creating the factual vacuum in which he had some hope of prevailing on the other charges.

The judge’s dispassion is also in question. Her harangue at sentencing was gratuitous and self-stultified by at least two non sequiturs. She reasoned that the defeat of a contemporaneous assisted suicide ballot initiative proved that the public wanted Kevorkian "stopped." How do we know that the public didn't reject the measure because it promised an ungodly bureaucratic monstrosity? Kevorkian himself urged it defeat on those grounds. Or perhaps the public was misled by months of disingenuous advertising implying a better solution from people with no intention of offering an alternative.

In any case, the only direct evidence we have suggests that people did support the doctor, when faced with the sometimes awful facts of real life. Jury nullification in previous trials twice set Kevorkian free even though he was clearly guilty of assisting suicides. The judge’s other error was her contention that Kevorkian’s flouting of the law and challenge to the authorities warranted a severe sentence. On the contrary, his principled campaign of civil disobedience (the "challenging" is partly what makes it civil disobedience) earned him leniency. Furthermore, this case involved compassion for suffering, no victim and a tainted verdict. For the judge to pretend that these were not mitigating factors justifying a light sentence was farcical.

The trial had the worst possible outcome: a technically correct, letter-of-the-law verdict, arguably unjust and topped by a vindictive sentence. Ultimately, the basis for the notion of civil disobedience is the possibility that sometimes the law is an ass, and this prosecution proved it.

Will Warner lives in Lodi Township. He can be reached at warnerwm@aol.com.

Comments

Will Warner

Mon, Jun 20, 2011 : 6:02 p.m.

To answer some objections hereā€¦ I don't see how we can call what Dr. K did violent. Violent disobedience would be like wading into a water canon to go mano-a-mano with riot police, or resisting arrest. In the case of Mr. Youk the film does not show Dr. K fighting with anyone, least of all Mr. Youk. He simply acceded to a patient's wish for an injection, a patient's wish to be afforded treatment of his own choosing. He did what, incidentally, Freud's physician did. Freud reminded his doctor of their "'contract' not to leave me in the lurch when the time came." When it was "nothing but torture and make[d] no sense," and with Anna's agreement, Freud's doctor gave him a lethal injection of morphine. I would also not characterize Dr. K's patients "psychologically vulnerable." We don't know if that is true, and it's a bit too paternalistic for me.

1bit

Mon, Jun 20, 2011 : 6:48 p.m.

Will, You are really stretching the definition of civil disobedience. As I noted, I'm unaware of anyone who would use or has used the term in regards to actively facilitating someone's death. Ending someone's life is violent, no matter how nicely we may couch the term or how much we fluff the proverbial pillow on which they lay or with which we asphyxiate them. When it comes to death and dying, I thnk we are all psychologically vulnerable.

Edward R Murrow's Ghost

Sun, Jun 19, 2011 : 7:24 p.m.

Rice: Had had no choice in the last case. He did not willingly go off to jail. Indeed, he denied he had committed any crime. Moreover, Mr. Kevorkian spent his career devising ways to do what he was doing while skirting and flaunting the law, all the while daring people to stop him. This is not civil disobedience. The classic model of civil disobedience is Ghandi, or the civil rights protesters of the 1950s and 1960s, who violated the law, did so very publicly, and who gladly went to jail to emphasize the justness of their cause. That is NOT what Mr. Kevorkian did--not ever. Good Night and Good Luck

Edward R Murrow's Ghost

Mon, Jun 20, 2011 : 4:41 p.m.

Three final points, and then I abandon the field: 1) Civil Disobedience requires an obvious and willful violation of the law and a willingness to pay the consequences for so doing. For all but the killing of Thomas Youks, Mr. Kevorkian was doing all he could to skirt the law and to avoid the consequences of his actions. 2) Civil disobedience, in most understandings of that term, require non-violence. The murder of a human being, as happened in the case of Thomas Youks, disqualifies that act as CD. 3) Thanks for the kind words, ricebrnr, and back at you. Good Night and Good Luck

Edward R Murrow's Ghost

Mon, Jun 20, 2011 : 4:31 p.m.

If someone wants to call themselves a member of the American military, it is not semantics to determine whether or not they meet the requirements of membership. Likewise it is not semantics to question (in this case) whether or not Mr. Kevorkian committed acts of civil disobedience, or whether or not he participated in euthanasia. The definitions, paired with his actions, are key to the question. Good Night and Good Luck

1bit

Mon, Jun 20, 2011 : 2:14 p.m.

At its essence "civil disobedience" is breaking the law. The connotation is given to those fighting a perceived unjust law. However, in its classic model as outlined by ERMG, it is nonviolent. The term, to my knowledge, has never been used for a practice that aids or facilitates death - this seems to be something new that Will is coining. So some of it is semantics. To some, terrorists are "freedom fighters". We look through our own prisms and make our judgements on these ethical issues. The problem with Mr. Kevorkian was his wrongheaded belief that the ends justify the means, which ultimately is the line that those who practice civil disobedience do not cross.

Ricebrnr

Mon, Jun 20, 2011 : 2:03 p.m.

ERMG, While we rarely agree on many subjects, I have always respected your debate skills. On this subject you argue semantics and contradict yourself within your own statements. "spent his career devising ways to do what he was doing while skirting and flaunting the law" "insisted time and again that he was not breaking laws" "classic model of civil disobedience ...who violated the law, did so very publicly" "The videotape of his actions led to his being convicted of murder" "After all, for this to have been an act of civil disobedience, he has to have broken the law." "At the core of civil disobedience is a willingness to pay the penalty for having broken the law, something Mr. Kevorkian was never willing to do." So someone who must understand the laws in order to skirt them, who publicly on camera took that final step between active and passive assistance, who knew that doing so could and would force a criminal action against him...implies he wasn't willing to go to jail on his beliefs? Really?

Edward R Murrow's Ghost

Sun, Jun 19, 2011 : 11:06 p.m.

Mr. Kevorkian insisted time and again that he was not breaking laws. Therefore, it was not civil disobedience. Good Night and Good Luck

Matt Cooper

Sun, Jun 19, 2011 : 9:20 p.m.

Civil disobediance is exactly what Kevorkian did. There were laws forbidding assisted suicide while at the same time there were patients that were dying and in interminable pain and suffering and wanted out, but couldn't find any means of ending their own suffering because of those archaic laws. He did what he did, and did it with the full cooperation, even at the behest, of his patients. And since Kevorkian did not actually administer any drug which caused death, there was no crime to go to jail for.

Ricebrnr

Sun, Jun 19, 2011 : 6:50 p.m.

ERMG, In your first comment you state the good Dr was unwilling to pay for his civil disobedience and yet in your last comment you confirmed that he did. Please rconcile as his assist of Mr Youk was deliberately done by him, on camera specifically to test those laws. He wagered his life to further his principles. Seems the definition of civil disobedience as you have advocated to me...

Edward R Murrow's Ghost

Sun, Jun 19, 2011 : 6:20 p.m.

MC wrote: "What Kevorkian did was not in any way "euthanasia". Euthanasia is the active and willful taking of another person's life for the purpose of relieving pain and suffering for the sufferer. What Kevorkian did was to provide a means to the end of suffering ONLY at the sufferers request. The sufferer made the choice, and then took the actions necessary to put their own choice into action." Euthanasia is the taking of a life to relieve pain and suffering. It does not matter WHO does it. Mr. Kevorkian played an active role in the euthanasia of dozens of so-called "patients". MC wrote: "He did not administer any drug." This is not even close to being true. Even were one to split hairs about whether or not setting up his "death machine" to include putting an intravenous line into the victim was or was not "administering," in the case of Thomas Youk, Mr. Kevorkian himself administered the drug. The videotape of his actions led to his being convicted of murder--as he should have been. Good Night and Good Luck

Edward R Murrow's Ghost

Mon, Jun 20, 2011 : 11:15 a.m.

Check the definition. Not the case. You can believe moonbeams from Mars killed these people if you want. Doesn't make it so. Good Night and Good Luck

Matt Cooper

Mon, Jun 20, 2011 : 7:03 a.m.

Euthanasia is a willful act one person takes against another. Since these people took the final act against themselves you cannot claim he took any act towards them. Read your own definition.

Edward R Murrow's Ghost

Sun, Jun 19, 2011 : 10:25 p.m.

Euthanasia: the act or practice of killing or permitting the death of hopelessly sick or injured individuals (as persons or domestic animals) in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy Source: <a href="http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/euthanasia" rel='nofollow'>http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/euthanasia</a> This is what Mr. Kevorkian did. And, to be honest, I don't understand the insistence that it was not euthanasia. After all, for this to have been an act of civil disobedience, he has to have broken the law. As they say in the Big House, &quot;You can't have one without the other.&quot; Good Night and Good Luck

Matt Cooper

Sun, Jun 19, 2011 : 9:17 p.m.

Secondly, placing an IV line is NOT in any way the equivalent of administering any drug. Here's a simple example for you: Just because you put gasoline into a cars gas tank is not the same as strating the engine and driving it away.

Matt Cooper

Sun, Jun 19, 2011 : 9:16 p.m.

Wrong answer ERMG. What differentiates assisted suicide from euthanasia is all in who commits the act which ends the life. In all but one of Kevorkians cases the patient made the choice and then committed the act which ended his/her own life. Doesn't matter what the means of death was, Kevorkian committed no act which directly ended a life. Therefore, no crime was committed, as prosecutor Gorcyca found out.

Matt Cooper

Sun, Jun 19, 2011 : 5:22 p.m.

Secondly, unless you work in health care and deal with end of life issues daily, such as do I, you haven't a clue what you're talking about with your comment about &quot;Mr. Kevorkian's shenanigans set back by decades doctors' efforts to allow patients to die with dignity.&quot; Dr. Kevorkian furthered the knowledge, experience and learning of the medical profession because he stirred debate and forced the old guard medical profession to re-examine it's own dogmas and belief systems about what rights patients have to make their own choices and to maintain their own dignity and integrity without having some white lab coat tell them they must stay in this world and suffer simply because 'we' don't agree with their choice to not continue the suffering they deal with each and every day. Every patient has the right to self-determination, and Kevorkian simply facilitated their right to choose when, where and how they would leave this world.

1bit

Mon, Jun 20, 2011 : 5:19 p.m.

&quot; the only reason he wasw found guilty of anything in the Youk assist was because Dr. Kevorkian administered the fatal mix of drugs which caused the physical end of Youk's life&quot; This is what I have been saying - he killed someone - so what are we arguing about again?

Matt Cooper

Mon, Jun 20, 2011 : 3:33 p.m.

My only predetermined conclusion is that every patient has the right to decide for himself when, where, why and how his pain and suffereing should end. And in case you didn't know, the only reason he wasw found guilty of anything in the Youk assist was because Dr. Kevorkian administered the fatal mix of drugs which caused the physical end of Youk's life. In no other situation did he do this, and minus the act, there is no crime. Please speak for your own conclusions and don't assume to know what mine are.

1bit

Mon, Jun 20, 2011 : 12:41 p.m.

So he wasn't found guilty, except for that time he was found guilty? You are arguing from the bias of your predetermined conclusion. I stand by my points.

Matt Cooper

Mon, Jun 20, 2011 : 7:07 a.m.

Ok, well I suppose you know better than the judges and the juries that failed to convict him. The fact of the matter, whether you agree or not, is that there was no act committed by Dr. Kevorkian that ended any life with the exception being Thomas Youk. Simply providing a means to an end is not the same as causing the end. And when you take away someon elses right to decide for themselves what medical care they are or are not entitled to, YOU are the one with the primitive thinking.

1bit

Sun, Jun 19, 2011 : 11:48 p.m.

Matt, He did commit an act as ERMG notes. Moreover, if he was an unnecessary cog then his &quot;patients&quot; would not have sought his assistance. People fear death as you are well aware and prolonging suffering is something no one wants, however there are options to limit pain that are and were available when he facilitated death. His lack of training, ignorance, and zeal blinded him. Those who believe that the end justifies the means are the ones truly guilty of primitive thinking.

Matt Cooper

Sun, Jun 19, 2011 : 9:13 p.m.

And what if that person doesn't want hospice? Don't they have the right to decide when, where and how their suffering should end? And hospice doesn't deal with people that aren't on or near deaths door. And even if they do, why should the patient have to wait until the very end of the road, after days, months or years of painful suffering before they are allowed to seek an end to their suffering? If it were your mother, suffering endlessly with no respite in sigh, what would you tell her? &quot;Sorry mom, but I don't agree with your choice, so you must now be in endless pain wether you like it or not!&quot;? I should hope not..

Mr. Ed

Sun, Jun 19, 2011 : 5:59 p.m.

That is why we have Hospice!!!

Matt Cooper

Sun, Jun 19, 2011 : 5:55 p.m.

How was he so wrong? He administered no drug, committed no act. And you base your comment on what knowledge and/or experience? And what other &quot;options&quot; were there? This happens all the time. Patients or their families deem their condition to be medically futile and therefore seek to make death easier. We are no longer in the stone age 1bit. Please, catch up.

1bit

Sun, Jun 19, 2011 : 5:33 p.m.

&quot;Kevorkian simply facilitated their right to choose...&quot; What Mr. Kevorkian did was wrong and he violated his Hippocratic Oath. He was empowered by no authority to enable suicide. There were other options at his disposal to advocate this issue. He chose his own fate, knew the consequences, and acted anyway - presumably to become a martyr for his cause. As you are well aware, there are rules that guide medical practice and conduct and they are there for a reason. One of those reasons is to prevent the abuse of one's power and knowledge.

Matt Cooper

Sun, Jun 19, 2011 : 5:14 p.m.

ERMG, you are quite wrong on this one. What Kevorkian did was not in any way &quot;euthanasia&quot;. Euthanasia is the active and willful taking of another person's life for the purpose of relieving pain and suffering for the sufferer. What Kevorkian did was to provide a means to the end of suffering ONLY at the sufferers request. The sufferer made the choice, and then took the actions necessary to put their own choice into action He did not administer any drug. There was no act of commission. In legal terms there was no actus reus (evil act) nor mens rea (evil mind), and without that, there is no crime. Even Dr. K's final assist was done at the sufferes request, with his permission and with his wife witnessing him asking Dr. K to assist him in ending his own pain.

Patti Smith

Sun, Jun 19, 2011 : 2:43 p.m.

OMG, I NEVER agree with this writer and I agree with him on this! Yay!!! I love when that happens.

Edward R Murrow's Ghost

Sun, Jun 19, 2011 : 12:37 p.m.

At the core of civil disobedience is a willingness to pay the penalty for having broken the law, something Mr. Kevorkian was never willing to do. This wasn't civil disobedience. It was the murder of people, many of whom were not terminally ill, all of whom were psychologically vulnerable. But the most ironic part of Mr. Kevorkian's self-serving antics was his calling his opponents &quot;Nazis&quot;. He apparently forgot, or was ignorant of, the Nazis' efforts to euthanize the elderly, the infirm, and those who they deemed &quot;mentally incapacitated.&quot; Mr. Kevorkian's shenanigans set back by decades doctors' efforts to allow patients to die with dignity. Good Night and Good Luck