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by William H. Benson

December 3, 1998


     Western Civilization, more or less, since the ancient Greeks has agreed that life is valued thing, precious, to be extended to as great a length as possible.  Quantity over quality.  Eastern Civilization has not always prized life this way.  For example, when the Spanish under Cortez marched into Tenochitlan, the Aztec’s capital, they witnessed the gruesome extrication of a live and beating heart from a sacrificed slave that was then offered up to the Aztec’s gods.  Horrified the Spanish were at the cheapness placed upon human life by the Aztecs.

     Four and a half centuries later on December 3, 1967 in South Africa,  Dr. Christiian Barnard stood in amazement and watched as a living human heart from a dead 25-year-old woman killed in an accident began beating inside the chest of a 53-year-old grocer, Louis Washkansky.  This, the first human heart transplant, furthered Washkansky’s sojourn until lung complications ended his life on the 21st.  Still it was18 days.

     Now, three decades later Western Civilization’s assumption that life is to be lengthened no matter the cost in terms of pain is being challenged by Jack Kevorkian.  (He cannot be referred to as a doctor because he lost his medical license in 1991 and now only prescribes poisons.)  A week ago Sunday evening “60 Minutes” played a video in which Kevorkian lethally injected Tom Yount, who suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease, with potassium chloride and ended his life.  This time Kevorkian did not assist in a suicide, because Yount did not flip any switch nor pull any plug.

      Fascinated by death, the 70-year-old Kevorkian demonstrates a self-destructive attitude, issuing a blatant and face-slapping challenge to the legal authorities to force a debate and to change the law.  He acts as if he cares not what happens to him personally, and not a few have wondered at his sanity.

     “Our morality is based upon mythology. . . . Either I will go to jail and starve myself to death or my attackers will change their thinking about life and about death.”

     The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates argued that through proper and careful reasoning right and wrong can be known, that truth can be distinguished from falsehood, and that people can determine what is good and best for them–a fundamental tenant of Western Civilization.  But, after a judicial ruling convicted Socrates of misleading the young men, his pupils, away from the gods, instead of escaping, the 70-year-old Socrates willingly drank his hemlock, his poison saying,  “And you too, judges, must face death with a good courage, and believe this is a truth, that no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death.”

     Jack Kevorkian deliberately jumped into the middle of an ethical dilemma forcing the authorities to act, and, of course, they did, serving him legal papers last week. 

      Here we are swimming in “out of bounds” territory and wandering in an ethical wilderness created by a medical pariah, a maverick. Certainly, a Jack Kevorkian should not be the one to lead us through, nor to even formulate the questions around which we must grapple.  I cannot consider him the “hero” the Mike Wallace’s have made of him, for I find his idea to concentrate power into the hands of physicians who will decide who lives and who dies an abhorrent thought.  But, in Kovorkian’s ideal world, doctors would decide when your life is no longer worth living.            

     If given a choice between Dr. Christiian Barnard or Jack Kevorkian for personal medical help, schedule my appointments with the heart surgeon and not the so-called “doctor” of death.