Terminal TV

Our culture slid further away from respect for human life when Dr. Jack Kevorkian killed Thomas Youk by lethal injection and CBS, on Sunday, broadcast the macabre videotape of the act to the nation.

Until now, Dr. Kevorkian's defenders have claimed the mantle of free choice. The good doctor merely provided and supervised a machine that others activated to commit suicide – supposedly a market exchange like any other. But this was always a twisted rationale, one that overlooked the reality that the ethic of life is the precondition of the freedom to choose.

In any case, it appears that all that complex machinery and all the theorizing was for naught – this time, Dr. Kevorkian administered the lethal injections himself. What the man actually wants to legalize, it is now apparent, is the untrammeled right to pull the trigger on anyone he deems ready to die anyway – a step from “assisted suicide' to outright medical homicide, an action that violates every code of medical ethics.

At least the grisly logic is at last laid bare. As Dr. Kevorkian himself said, “The issue's got to be raised to the level where it is finally decided.” The decision we face is this: Either we hold to the notion that human life needs no justification (not utility, not beauty, not social acceptance) or we find ourselves unable to oppose even a terminal act of aggression against life. Unable to oppose it, we commercialize it and put death on display.

Until now news programs have refused to broadcast events like politically motivated suicides and executions. The Radio-Television News Directors Association's 1987 Code of Broadcast News Ethics rejects “sensationalism” and insists that broadcast journalists “respect the dignity, privacy and well-being of people with whom they deal.” But the producers of “60 Minutes,” the program that broadcast the Kevorkian tape, have elected to cooperate with Dr. Death and drag the nation along.

As any medical student knows from the day of his first autopsy, the more one is around death the more one is inured to it. The sensationalistic path chosen by CBS can only help to slowly desensitize us to killing. (To their credit, at least six CBS affiliates refused to show the segment.)

It's all eerily reminiscent of NBC's 1994 movie “Witness to the Execution,” a fictional account of a revenue-hungry network that offers a pay-per-view execution. CBS has claimed that it “performed a public service” in broadcasting the Kevorkian tape. But the fact is that “60 Minutes” and its advertisers scored big with this snuff film. Shouldn't the profit motive end where life and death become mere commodities for public consumption?

The most immediate question is, What should be done with Dr. Kevorkian? Earlier this month Michigan voters overwhelmingly rejected an amendment that would have legalized assisted suicide. The law offers no protection for Dr. Kevorkian. Recognizing this, he has invited the authorities to arrest him, in which case he promises to starve himself.

It would be a pathetic but not an unsurprising conclusion to this drama for Dr. Kevorkian to display the same disregard for his own life that he has for the lives of others. It would be a sad epitaph for Dr. Kevorkian to become the first martyr to die for the right to kill.

Nonetheless, the matters confronting us are very serious. Let us decide this issue now. For the sake of life itself, swift legal action should be taken against Dr. Kevorkian, exactly as he requests.