As a college student in Michigan ten years ago, I went to see Dr. Jack Kevorkian speak. At the end of his talk, people were allowed to ask questions. After a handful of questions over legal issues, a wheelchair-bound man took the microphone and began accusing Dr. Kevorkian of being a murderer and encouraging people with disabilities to end their lives. The old doctor at the podium tried his best to respond to the baseless accusations, but with every attempt to set the record straight, the man in the wheelchair just became more enraged and more belligerent.
I have no idea who it was that gave this disabled individual the idea that Kevorkian had a desire to kill people in his situation, but the media-crafted persona of him as “Dr. Death” allowed for many people to misunderstand him and to avoid the very simple point that he was trying to make – that it’s not the government’s role to tell people how to deal with the reality of terminal illnesses and unmanageable pain. And the hysteria that followed his fame and his brashness sent this gaunt old man to jail soon after.
Upon his release from jail last week, media outlets seemed incredulous that Kevorkian hasn’t changed his mind about his actions. There’s no reason for him to. He’s standing up for a principle that is fundamental to our rights and to what this country is all about. Our government should not have the right to impose a particular morality upon its citizens. If a person with a terminal illness feels that they wish to control the way they leave this earth, the government should have no right to stop them. If a person dealing with pain so excruciating that they can no longer enjoy their existence decides that death is a better alternative, it’s simply unconscionable to force that person to continue to endure the pain. This man went to prison for 8 years in defense of these rights, and for that, he’s a hero.
In America today, our growing tendency to believe that government has a role in making our moral choices for us is sending more and more people to jail who clearly don’t belong there. In Spokane, a 66-year-old woman named Christine Rose Baggett is facing a felony charge. Baggett suffers from arthritis, two herniated discs in her back, and a bad ankle. Why is this clear menace to society being charged?
What the court record shows is that Baggett admitted purchasing an ounce of marijuana from a man on Aug. 23 for $180. But she gave some of it back to him “as payment for delivering the marijuana to her.”
Baggett, like many other people with similar ailments, had discovered that marijuana is very effective and inexpensive pain reliever. But despite the fact that Washington State voters overwhelmingly voted for the legal use of medical marijuana, prosecutors in Spokane still believe that they’re protecting society by hauling this poor old woman through the court system on technicalities.
Going back to Dr. Kevorkian, do people really believe that by sending someone like him to jail it was going to change his mind? This is a man who already believed that the law was wrong and was expecting to go to jail. Why would following through on the threat have any meaning at all, other than to prove to Kevorkian how dangerous the government has become in following its delusions?
The United States has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners. There are a number of reasons for this, but much of it boils down to our collective belief that prison is an effective tool for enforcing moral conformity, rather than just a way to provide justice for victims of crime. We understand that it’s fair and just to have a system where people who harm others are removed from free society and locked up. But it’s time we recognize that jail is not the place for those who aren’t harming anyone but whose personal moral choices we may disapprove of.