When a Society Starts Defining Death Down

December 21, 1993|By CAL THOMAS

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Last Monday a judge in Wayne County, Michigan, declared the state law against assisted suicide unconstitutional. In his original ruling, Judge Richard Kaufman drew a distinction between people wishing to commit suicide who have what he termed a ''low quality of life'' and those who have a higher ''quality of life.'' The law could not apply to the former. It could apply to the latter.

This is the type of ruling we might expect under some proposed forms of universal health care in which the government decides who should live and who should die based on a formula that determines who is productive and who is a drain on limited government resources.

Although Judge Kaufman later struck down the law banning assisted suicide, he did raise the issue that the choice of suicide is inherently more ''rational'' and ''reasonable'' if made by people with disabilities or with any medical condition that adversely affects ''quality of life.''

When government begins deciding who is fit to live and who deserves to die, we are all potential victims. But this is the inevitable outcome when society moves from a view that all human life is sacred to one that considers the right to life a privilege granted by government and not something endowed by life's Creator.

Although the legal questions remain muddled, we seem to be heading in a disturbing direction. Are we ready for this scenario? Two people come before the judge, each wishing to commit suicide (with the help of Dr. Jack Kevorkian). It is up to the judge to decide which of these petitioners is making an objectively ''rational'' request based on the seriousness of a disability and the likelihood of recovery, and which will make the greater contribution to society given limited medical resources. The judge will decide that the more seriously disabled person does indeed have the right to suicide, while the healthier person will be covered by the law preventing assisted suicide.

If the state becomes a modern-day Caesar, all of us will be Colosseum spectators of a display of bigotry against the infirm and the handicapped. As people present themselves, ''Caesar,'' according to a judge's standards, will give thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Hail, Caesar. We who are about to die salute you.

The four-stage trip runs from the supposed individual choice to die, to the state's telling you it won't pay to keep you alive because your disability isn't covered by national health care, to the state's telling you that you have to die because you are too expensive a burden, to the state's doing the killing. You will then get the ultimate and final house call by ''Dr. Death,'' Jack Kevorkian, and the new industry he will spawn.

Contemplating these life-and-death issues gives us insight into other disturbing trends. For example, it strips the mask of ''individual autonomy'' from the euthanasia movement. Few people accept the idea that everybody (from depressed teen-agers, to bankrupt CEOs, to disappointed lovers) has a fundamental right to suicide. The euthanasia movement wants us to acknowledge that there are certain people for whom suicide is perfectly rational and therefore expected -- those who do not live up to our conception of the fun-loving ''meaningful life.''

Coming next will be an education program designed to ensure that people know how to exercise their right to die and to comfort them with the knowledge that our legal system will back them all the way to the grave.

Why do we have such a preoccupation with death? Could it be that after succeeding in banning God from the center of public and private life, we have discovered little for which to live?

Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.

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