May/June, 1998

On June 5, Not Dead Yet activists arrived to protest at the Hemlock Society's annual meeting in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In the article below, NDY activist C. K. Montgomery explains the group's tactics. Read about their protest in D. R. Nation.

The Tactics of Survival

By C. K. Montgomery


C. K. Montgomery is a member of Not Dead Yet. She can be reached by e-mail at ckmont@aol.com.

Hey, you! Yeah, I'm talking to you. I want to get your opinion on assisted suicide.

Whaddaya think, if someone's hopelessly ill and wants to die, should her doctor or her family be able to help her do it?

Play it out in your mind. If you cut someone out of the crowd at random and threw out that question, what kind of answer would you expect? From what I'm hearing these days, the odds are something like two to one you'd get a "yes." Not Dead Yet isn't happy with those odds - and neither is anyone else opposed to legalizing assisted suicide. So, what are we going to do about them?

Let's take a look at the situation. There are a couple of arguments that the public sees as being on the table. The right-to-die crowd often takes as a premise "Every adult should be permitted to do what he or she wants, so long as no one else is harmed," - let's call that one the Freedom Premise. Their opposition, on the other hand, tends to answer, "Some things are wrong, and some things are so wrong that nobody should be permitted to do them," or "You should not be permitted to do what you want if it harms you, even if you are an adult." In other words, the replies to Freedom are Moral Absolutism and Paternalism. Simple enough.

If you just watch TV or read the major newspapers, those are the arguments. Watch a few shows, read a few articles, and it starts to look a whole lot like the forces of freedom against the busybodies. Other arguments, when they are made, are ignored, and when more subtle arguments actually get reported, the coverage tends to be so distorted that it's hard to tell what points are being made. So "the people" are basically seeing those three arguments. And they like the one about freedom.

These days, the Freedom Premise is pretty widely accepted. And the death fundamentalists (as Paul Longmore calls them) have convinced a whole lot of people that rational people who believe in the Freedom Premise have to support legalization of assisted suicide. Arguments for the legalization of assisted suicide typically build on the Freedom Premise by identifying the claim that people should be permitted to commit suicide with the claim that they should be able to commit suicide. But these two claims are not the same. Moreover, they typically include the assertion that assisted suicide harms nobody. But that's not true.

The move from permitted to able seems clear enough, but it isn't. "Anne should be permitted to do what she likes," the way it's normally taken, is not the same as "Anne should be able to do what she likes." If Anne should be permitted to do something, then Ben shouldn't be allowed to interfere with her doing it. If Anne should be able to do something, then she might reasonably demand of Ben that he help her out.

As every Ragged Edge reader knows, there are some abilities that society should make sure we have (like the ability to ride the bus) and others that aren't society's responsibility (like the ability to walk). Right-to-die activists often argue that suicide is an ability of the first kind. They claim the ability to die when life is intolerable is central to the ability to shape a total life which the person living it can value. Moreover, they claim that that ability to shape your total life is a fundamental right.

But when people with disabilities are routinely denied those things that they need to live their lives in ways that they value, offering easy access to death is a form of pressure. Anyway, suppose society does decide that it has a responsibility to help people die if they're bad at suicide. Who would that be? Not just disabled people. Women. Men are responsible for the vast majority of actual suicides, but if you take a look at the statistics on total attempts - both successful and failed - that's mostly women.

And as far as ability goes, not being able to commit suicide is not usually a problem, unless, like many people in psychiatric institutions, you happen to be someone who has been identified as needing active interference with your suicide attempts. If you depend on equipment or medication to keep you alive, you can stop using or taking it. You can stop eating and drinking. You can roll your wheelchair off a cliff, run your car into a wall, play games with guns or nooses, douse yourself with kerosene and take up smoking, or read Derek Humphry's new, updated, version of Final Exit. (Yes, I have a morbid imagination.)

Of course, the death fundamentalists are more likely to be talking of specific ways of killing oneself. It's not enough just to be able to do it; you have to be able to do it in a "dignified" (which seems to mean peaceful, painless, guaranteed, and aesthetically pleasing) way. And that seems to me to be a bit beyond society's responsibility, particularly since peaceful, painless, guaranteed, and aesthetically pleasing methods of suicide are few and far between for everyone, and society doesn't seem all that interested in offering everyone even a relatively pain-free and kind of pretty life.


But the difference between permitted and able, suicide and dignified suicide are kind of subtle. Not everyone's going to understand them right away. So let's take a look at harm. A lot of people out there are thinking, The only person who gets harmed in an assisted suicide is the one who chose to die - and how harmed can you be when you get what you want? This is why we hear a lot of talk about safeguards.

And this is where Not Dead Yet comes in. Not Dead Yet has an analysis of the situation that demonstrates pretty clearly that it's not just the people choosing to die who are harmed. It's all of us. When spin doctors like Robert Latimer can make premeditated murder come across as love, when masters of behavior modification techniques like George Delury can publish accounts of how to convince family members to commit suicide and get away with it, we are all at risk. When our doctors, many of whom already believe that our lives are not worth living, are offered a chance to do something about it at the same time that the HMOs are punishing them for giving us access to the treatments we need to live, when our families are punished for having us as members but our relatives are excluded from the laws against killing us, we are all at risk. And when our very lives are at risk from those closest to us, we are harmed. So we can counter claims about Freedom with demands for Justice.

This is a distinct argument, and it needs to be heard.

Let me say that again, and let me say it very clearly:The Not Dead Yet argument is distinct. Even though many Not Dead Yet members also make other arguments against the legalization of assisted suicide, it is the secular, social-justice argument which unites and defines this particular group. The Not Dead Yet argument needs to be heard. At a time when many people believe that the only arguments against the legalization of assisted suicide involve limiting freedoms and limiting rights, it is critical that these people be exposed to an analysis and an argument that makes it clear that our freedoms and our rights and our very lives are in jeopardy if assisted suicide is legalized.

Most people who like the Freedom Premise also tend to like "No one should be permitted to harm others." Many of these people will not be convinced by any argument they see as coming from a "right-to-life" or religious perspective, simply because they see these groups as attacking the Freedom Premise itself. The Not Dead Yet argument, on the other hand, can have an impact on this group. It can make it clear to these people that you can believe that everyone should have the right to do what they want until they start hurting other people and still believe that legalization of assisted suicide is a bad thing - and in the process win adherents. So, once again, given that we have to get our arguments on the table, the question is: what are we going to do about it?

We need to start by making it very clear, to our allies and to our enemies and to the general public, that while other groups speak with us, they do not and can never speak for us. We are in agreement as to the goal, but for different reasons. This means demanding that those of our brothers and sisters who are doing double and triple duty in the struggle - who are presenting not just one way of looking at the issue, but two or three - be recognized for that work. It means acknowledging our diversity and celebrating it at the same time that we understand that our unity in this argument gives us power. Power.

We need to continue by ensuring that the full force of the arguments against legalization is not diluted. The familiar forms of the right-to-life arguments, for example, are at best watered down; at worst they are outright parodies. Think how much soul-searching moral subtlety gets lost when we interpret all moral arguments as just one group trying to impose its values on another.

And the same is true of the social-justice argument. It's as if we were playing the old party game "Telephone" with society: when we whisper the argument to our neighbor, it is forceful and detailed, but by the time it comes all the way around the circle, it has somehow turned into "People with disabilities can't make rational decisions and need to be protected from their choices." This means being clear at all times about which argument we are putting forward, and not mixing them. Presenting two arguments simultaneously can leave confusion as to which is which, and whether they are distinct; presenting them one after the other will help our listeners to understand the merits of each.

We need, in other words, to make our identity clear, to make it as easy as possible for observers to understand who we are and are not, what we are and are not saying. We need to be respectful of our allies, but not indistinguishable from them. We need our voice to be heard, and heard clearly.

For these are the tactics of survival.

The Freedom Premise at work

. . Where is that love of freedom of choice so beloved of Americans? Roosevelt Dawson, the 21-year-old quadriplegic who committed suicide with Kevorkian's help, was obviously intelligent and competent, but did not wish to spend the next 50 years on his back. It was his life to do with as he wished. It was he who was suffering, not me or you. Who are we to tell him what to do? To order Roosevelt to live was just as heinous as ordering him to die.

Obviously he could not do it himself, so he turns to Kevorkian because most - not all - in the medical profession are too gutless to face the moral truths involved in the issue. .

From a letter in Sunday, March 15, Detroit News from Hemlock Society founder Derek Humphry.

College student death "signals major turn"

A 67-year-old resident of Southfield, Mich., Mary Judith Kanner , who had Huntington's disease, died at Kevorkian's hand as Ragged Edge was going to press. The death was one of more than 100 attended by Kevorkian since 1990.

The late February death of Roosevelt Dawson - a 21-year-old Southfield college student paralyzed from the neck down who fought to be released from a hospital to meet with Kevorkian - signals a major turn in Kevorkian's program, The Detroit News reported.

When Kevorkian was tried twice in Oakland County in 1996, his defense was that he was relieving ``pain and suffering.'' Today, he says a person's choice to live or die should depend on how they view their "quality of life.''.

Kevorkian's attorney, Geoffrey Fieger, says the issue always has been quality of life.

"I don't care what they say,'' Fieger told the News. "Critics? How can they criticize him for this? Ask Christopher Reeve if he'd approve of Roosevelt Dawson's quality of life.''.

The Oakland County Medical Examiner's office ruled Dawson's death a homicide, although no charges had been filed.


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