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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hey, you! Yeah, I'm talking to you. I want to get your opinion on assisted
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.