As society overrides community

February 19, 1997|By James P. Pinkerton

NEW YORK -- One's first reaction to the news that 53 percent of San Francisco Bay-area doctors have helped their patients die by prescribing lethal doses of sedatives is that the percentage seems awfully high.

Other surveys have yielded less newsworthy results: A study of cancer specialists found that just 14 percent had participated in euthanasia, and other studies have found even lower percentages. Of course, physician-assisted suicide is a crime -- and that surely affects the survey results.

But one's second reaction is to note the changing climate of opinion on this sensitive issue; a survey of Bay Area doctors in 1990 found vastly less support for assisted suicide. Yet, in 1994, the voters of Oregon, often a trend-setting state, approved the Death with Dignity Act. And a new study in Michigan, where Dr. Jack Kevorkian has raised the issue to excruciating salience, has found that 56 percent of physicians and 66 percent of the public support the practice.

So one's third reaction is: If this matter is being dealt with already, in different places in different ways, then why are ''right to die'' activists making such a fuss -- literally, a federal case -- about something that is occurring already? However the Supreme Court rules, here's a prediction: The question will be even harder to resolve after it runs through the judicial mill.

Ferdinand Tonnies could have explained why. The German sociologist, writing in 1887, made the distinction between organic community and the society constructed upon it.

Tonnies used the terms ''Gemeinschaft'' -- ''a living organism'' -- and ''Gesellschaft'' -- ''a mechanical aggregate.'' He believed ''progress'' would inevitably shift more of human affairs from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft; yet he celebrated the former as it embodied ''the truly human and supreme form of community.''

Respect for customs

To be sure, not all customs must be respected, or even permitted. In America, apologists for slavery, animal sacrifice and, most recently, arranged marriage have all invoked tradition as a defense.

Yet all too often, the self-styled forces of modernity have seen folkways and common law as their enemy and legislation and litigation as their friends. In matters ranging from law enforcement to parental rights to affirmative action, the American Civil Liberties Union, for example, has not only ignored public opinion, it has sought to trample it in its idiosyncratic quest for a judge-run society. And neither community nor society has been improved.

Jan Rosenberg, a sociologist at Long Island University, describes the ACLU as ''the quintessential Gesellschaft institution: They believe in the rule of law to the exclusion of common sense.'' In the ACLU worldview, she adds, ''there is no room for anything other than legal relationships.''

Just last week the ACLU scored yet another victory for crackpot proceduralism over community propriety. A Fort Lauderdale, Fla., student, Rebecca Antolak, who is all of 17, sued her high school for violating her ''right'' to display a huge sculpture of a nude man that she had made in her art class.

With the ACLU's help, Ms. Antolak convinced a judge that she was entitled to $25,000 in damages, plus $20,000 in legal fees -- which presumably the ACLU will get a piece of. Leaving aside questions of what this teen-ager's parents had to say about this controversy, one must wonder: Does the ACLU truly think this is a better country because a minor child has the legal right to place such an object in the lobby of a public school?

The same Gemeinschaft-be-damned thinking informs the ''the right to die'' crusade. Michael Uhlmann, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and a strong foe of legalized assisted suicide, concedes that ''salutary neglect'' is often the best way to handle such gray-area questions. But since the right-to-die activists have raised the issue, Mr. Uhlmann now fights to preserve the ''sharp distinction'' between ''killing'' and ''allowing someone to die.''

So the legal battle is joined. In the years to come, perhaps the most intimate and painful decisions people can make will become fodder for Court TV. ''In the course of history,'' Tonnies wrote wistfully more than a century ago, ''folk culture has given rise to the civilization of the state.'' And what he suspected, we now know: that a stronger government does not make for a better country.

James P. Pinkerton is a columnist for Newsday.

Pub Date: 2/19/97

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