12 DECEMBER 1998, Page 20


New Hampshire At this season, American TV networks would broadcast specials like The Perry Como Christmas Show with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing 'The Little Drummer Boy'. These days the fare is more robust. So the other weekend CBS's flagship news show 60 Minutes signed Dr Jack Kevorkian to kill a guy in prime time.

Dr Kevorkian is America's most famous `assisted suicide' assistant: if you're feeling down, call him up; he'll come round, `assist' you, and dump your corpse at the county morgue the following morning. For his TV special, though, he wasn't assisting but delivering the lethal injection himself. The Doctor is not, temperamentally, one of life's assistants, and it was inevitable that he would one day demand a more proactive role.

You can't blame 60 Minutes, who, in some ways, are in the same precarious position as the nation's assisted suicides. They've been America's number one TV show for three decades, but their ratings are a little less healthy these days and, face it, the average age of the production team is about 104. The chief anchor is Mike Wallace, 80; the producer is Don Hewitt, 77. The show has an off-week or two, and suddenly the family — the network starts wondering whether it wouldn't be kinder to put the old coots out of their misery and, besides, look at the money it costs keeping 'em going. So the codgers had to exercise a little muscle, prove they could still go the distance in the era of Jerry Springer and other more raucous fare.

And Dr Kevorkian more than delivered. The guy he killed was . . . well, I forget his name and, frankly, it seems a bit of a chore to cross the room to look up the poor schmucko loser's moniker when no one else remembers it either: like the girl who gets sawn in half by a star magician, he was strictly a prop. But, for those proponents of 'death with dignity', Dr Jack's bedside manner was no doubt comforting. 'We're going to inject in your right arm,' he said, as 22 million Americans watched him reach for the potassium chloride. 'Okay? Okey-doke.' And, with the Doctor's okey- doke ringing in his ear, 52-year-old Tom Youk (I looked him up), a sufferer from Lou Gehrig's disease, departed this life, just in time for the commercial break.

Thus, the old Kevorkian okey-dokey: you put the needle in, you take the needle out, you put the needle in, and you watch him shake about. Afterwards, the octoge- narian Wallace put a few questions to Dr K., who looked at him with the genial anticipation a cougar reserves for tomor- row's lunch. Why do this on network televi- sion? Easy, said Dr Death. 'Either they go or I go.' He was, in fact, referring to the state of Michigan's prohibitions on murder. There are already laws against physician- assisted suicide, but, after three acquittals, no prosecutor is anxious to drag the Doc into court again. Indeed, one county attor- ney was elected on the specific platform that he wouldn't waste any more tax rev- enues prosecuting Dr K.: nothing is certain but death and taxes, so it seems foolish to blow the latter on investigating one man's zeal for the former. Hence the Doctor's decision to raise the stakes from merely assisting to actively killing. A few days after the broadcast, goaded into action, the county attorney charged Dr Kevorkian with first-degree murder. If he's convicted, the Doc says he'll go on hunger strike and kill himself. Wow, talk about taking your work home with you.

With his severely cropped white hair and the unnerving random smile of a Holly- wood serial killer, Jack Kevorkian is not the pin-up boy the 'mercy killing' move- ment would wish. As a doctor, he's never had a patient he's made better. He was a pathologist before he got into the killing business. He's also an artist who paints whereof he knows: an exhibition of recent works a year or two back drew heavily on his fondness for skulls and severed heads. Then he diversified into organ donation, promoting the harvesting of death-row inmates and showing up at press confer- ences waving miscellaneous spare parts yanked, none too neatly, from his latest patients. When he turned up at a local hos- pital offering his most recent client's kid- neys, one of his lawyers could stomach no more. Michael Odette's seven-year-old son said, 'Dad, you shouldn't represent him. They should throw him in jail and melt the key.' That kind of did it for me,' said Mr Odette.

But, in fairness, Dr Kevorkian has a point. Michigan electors voted down a bal- lot initiative to legalise assisted suicide. On the other hand, Michigan juries have thrice cleared the Doctor of assisted suicide going so far, on the third acquittal, as ask- ing for his autograph and inviting him to dinner. But dinner and an acquittal are no longer enough. Dr K. loves killing people and he's insulted by Michigan's informal compromise — unwilling to repeal the law but unwilling to enforce it. He's right, we're allowing the culture of death to advance silently onwards through the grey fringes of society to its very centre.

Consider, for example, another nobody like Tom Youk — a fellow called Robert Wendland from Stockton, California. Mr Wendland was injured in an automobile accident in 1993 and was unconscious for over a year — in which condition, under state law, he could have been dehydrated to death by the removal of his feeding tube at the request of his wife Rose. Mrs Wendland never got around to it, there being no par- ticular urgency. But one day Robert woke up and recovered to the extent that he could perform rudimentary tasks and wheel his chair up and down the hospital corri- dors. Nevertheless, Rose decided to have him dehydrated anyway on the grounds that, while the Robert of the mid-Nineties may enjoy the simple pleasures of his life, the Robert she married — the pre-1993 Robert — most certainly wouldn't have.

Robert Wendland would be dead now if someone at the hospital hadn't anony- mously tipped off his mother and sister, who promptly sued to keep him alive. San Joaquin County appointed a public defender to represent Mr Wendland's interests, but mysteriously he sided with the missus and vigorously insisted that the Judge order his client to be put down. The Judge declined to do so, but Mr Wend- land's attorney decided to appeal against his client's reprieve and the court set aside $50,000 of public funds to hire a hotshot private lawyer who'd be able to make a slicker case in favour of Robert's death before the appeals court. San Joaquin County has curious priorities, as Wesley J. Smith of the International Anti-Euthana- sia Task Force notes, if it's prepared to use taxpayers' money `to urge the death of one of its citizens, whose only "crime" is to be brain-damaged'.

But welcome to the world of `futile-care theory', where the wishes of the patient or his family no longer count. The name's a little disingenuous: as Robert Wendland would appreciate, it's not the care that's futile but the patient. Sure, you can make him comfortable, teach him to watch TV, respond to music, recover crude forms of Communication. But big deal: in the end, he's still some useless cripple. And the modern world has very pronounced views on whose lives have value and whose don't.

It's hard to believe that our increasing enthusiasm for hastening death isn't con- nected to our well-established practice of denying life: abortion and euthanasia sing their siren songs from opposite ends of life's cycle. But what a shame the 'pro- choice' movement has no lurid Kevorkian figure to force the issues before 22 million Americans. Instead, under the bland cover of 'a woman's right to choose', the abor- tionist beavers away in the shadows, and only in the rarest of circumstances is day- light shed on his art.

One such occasion was 14 March 1997, when two boys playing at the foot of a steep embankment just off the Coronado Freeway in Chino Hills, California, came across some garbage from the highway and cycled home excitedly to tell their parents they had found boxes with 'babies' in them.

They were wrong, of course. The boxes contained not babies but foetuses, and, as 'the Supreme Court has ruled, foetuses are not babies, not at all. But they looked like babies, albeit in incomplete configurations, like second-hand dolls: some were almost whole, the rest just a grab-bag of limbs and heads. It fell to Brian McCormick, the San Bernadino County coroner, to determine that there were 54 in all, dumped there by a careless trucker, who may not have been aware what precisely the clinic 30 miles down the road had given him to get rid of. He spent 71 days in gaol for 'the improper disposal of medical waste'.

And that would have been that, had not a few residents, feeling bad about the `medical waste' dumped in their backyard, contacted Mr McCormick and offered to give the non-babies a proper burial. At which point, enter the American Civil Lib- erties Union: never mind that trucker, it was this religious burial service that consti- tuted truly 'improper disposal of medical waste'. The ACLU decided that, by hand- ing over the medical waste 'for the express purpose of holding religious services', a civic official was facilitating a religious cer- emony and, therefore, breaching the sepa- ration of church and state and threatening everyone's civil liberties.

America is not that bonkers, not yet. A few weeks ago, the ACLU's ludicrous complaint and the non-babies were both laid to rest, the latter in 54 small caskets with brass plates and headstones in a cemetery in Riverside. The plots, the plates, the granite, the coffins were all pro- vided free of charge by local organisations.

The scandal is not that these babies were unloaded off the edge of the high- way, but that they were yanked from the womb in the first place. The culture of death marches on under the artful euphemism of 'a woman's right to choose'. To choose what? The most cumbersome and inefficient form of contraception any society could devise. But the feminist movement chose early on to fetishise abor- tion and is unwilling to be weaned from its habit. In fact, since the murder of an abor- tion doctor in Buffalo just before Novem- ber's elections, there's been an attempt to argue that the rhetoric of pro-life groups contributes to 'the climate of hate' and to rule the subject out of bounds in polite society. In the Los Angeles Times, Suzanne Gordon and Isabel Marcus objected to fel- lows like me using terms like 'abortion doctor' and 'abortionist' to describe the slain Dr Barnett Slepian: he was, they say, a 'healer' who 'in the course of a broad obstetrical-gynaecological practice' termi- nated pregnancies `to save the woman's life or to respect her own personal choice about becoming a mother'. These two cir- cumstances did not weigh equally with the late Dr Slepian. According to a survey by the pro-abortion Alan Guttmacher Insti- tute, asked why they were terminating their pregnancies, only 7 per cent of women cited any kind of 'health problem', life-threatening or not, while 76 per cent were 'concerned about how having a baby could change her life', 68 per cent said they 'can't afford baby now', 51 per cent have 'problems with relationship'. In other words, belated birth control.

It's no surprise that in a culture of death there are those who resent the way such a frivolous 'right to choose' does not extend beyond term. For if a viable, sentient nine- month foetus can be partially delivered and painfully killed, why stop there? The teenager who last year delivered her baby in a toilet stall during her high-school prom, flung him in the trash and went back to the dance with her boyfriend is truly a nativity story for our times.

Americans are not, once you pin them down, pro-abortion except in very limited circumstances, which would account for about 1 per cent of those currently per- formed. But, as with Dr Kevorkian, they're disinclined to be judgmental, preferring not to confront it, to leave it in the shad- ows with other inconvenient ethical issues. But times change. Women in their twen- ties have pictures of their own ultrasounds and understand that the blurry blob is life — it's them, the first snapshot on the first page of their own baby albums. And, with medical technology making life viable ear- lier and earlier, this generation doesn't feel the same about abortion as their mothers. Nor do today's medical school graduates. Increasingly, women doctors especially refuse to perform elective abor- tions; to the outrage of the women's move- ment, abortion on demand is not available in 90 per cent of American counties mostly because of the distaste of the medi- cal profession.

So killing for convenience, at the end of life's cycle as at the start, may be a phase that one day will pass. And, in its way, that's not an unseasonal thought.