At Dawn, Activists Greet Matters of Death in Shades of Gray
By Laura Blumenfeld
At 5 a.m., there is no ambiguity. The sky lies black and flat, clamped over the Supreme Court building like a coffin lid, no light leaking in.
"I think life is an important value -- period," says Andrew Eiva, 48, hunkered inside a hooded parka. He stands first in line, and firm in his belief: He is a Catholic, and his religion dictates that it is wrong to help someone die. Eiva is shivering outside the building with a hundred other folks, hoping for a ticket to watch arguments in one of the most significant Supreme Court cases since the Roe v. Wade abortion decision -- whether terminally ill people have the constitutional right to doctor-assisted suicide.
"Will nature take its course, or will we turn doctors into angels of death?" says Bob Castagna, executive director of the Oregon Catholic Conference, grasping the ticket a court officer just handed him, marked "Admission Card #2."
For these two men, it is a black-and-white issue. But tick through the line of people who have been waiting here all night -- their eyes floating under blankets, their arms waggling, their feet stuttering out tap dances to keep warm -- and a duskier picture emerges, one that mixes the complexity of the case with the doubts it inspires.
"I'm more pro than con," says Doris Kuehn, 32, whose father, a right-to-die proponent, has lost a lung and seven ribs because of tuberculosis. "But you can't pin it down. Does it have to be severe pain, or is it just a feeling that I want to die? I know there are gray areas."
For the people on the steps of the Supreme Court, the issue is all about the gray zones: the physical, religious, moral and legal uncertainties that surround a hastened death. Justice Antonin Scalia said recently that he felt like someone being asked to deliver cosmic wisdom. "Why would you leave that to nine lawyers, for heaven's sake?" he said.
Physicians are also grappling with the awful responsibility. Some doctors who treat the terminally ill admit to administering massive doses of painkillers until their patients eventually stop breathing. The options -- withholding care, discontinuing care, administering a lethal dose of medication -- fall along a continuum.
Outside the court, night is sliding into day. The Capitol dome, glowing like a half-moon minutes ago, is turning crater-gray. The sky is equal parts dark and light, and the people are puffing out white clouds as they argue over when the line between wrong and right is crossed.
"Assisted suicide is self-mutilation," says Marc Spindelman, 28.
"Disease is mutilation," counters Carol Poenisch, 42. Her mother was stricken with Lou Gehrig's disease. "Have you ever seen a woman with cancer, where the bone gets eaten away, and her back collapses? Is that a life?"
"Whether it's a life or not, I don't think the Constitution supports suicide," says Spindelman. An American flag snaps in the wind above his head. He asks Poenisch why she flew here all the way from Michigan.
"My mother was Number 19," says Poenisch. She was Merian Frederick, Jack Kevorkian's 19th assisted suicide, killed in October 1993 by sucking on a plastic tube that fed her carbon monoxide. Before Frederick died, she had lost the ability to speak. She wrote in a note to her three children:
I have 2 criteria for meaningful existence.
1) a posture that allows me to write without undue fatigue.
2) finger & forearm strength that allow typing & writing.
Then the 72-year-old mother outlined what she could not endure:
When I can't go to the john without help
play my tape books
Poenisch says she was horrified and angry when she first heard that her mother wanted to kill herself. But later, as she watched her suffer, she changed her mind.
"It's prolonging death, instead of prolonging life," says Dan Driscoll, 14, who says his grandmother has Alzheimer's disease. "Should the time come, we may not give life support."
To Eleanor Smith, 53, an activist for the disabled, such declarations are frightening. " `Normal' people who want to commit suicide are treated like they're nuts. But if someone is deaf, blind or in a wheelchair, a doctor says, `Okay! Good idea!' " she says. Smith contracted polio at age 3 and uses a wheelchair. "When you're not sweet and sexy anymore, you get assisted out of this world."
As Smith speaks, Laurence Tribe hurries by, clutching his briefcase, smiling. The Harvard law professor is representing the group of New York doctors who want to help mentally competent terminally ill patients die. He looks like a nice man, Smith says, but she finds him scary. "It's creepier than seeing a man with a gun. It's like someone who's killing you softly, whispering, `This is for your own good.' "
Smith is a member of Not Dead Yet, a disability rights group, out waving pink banners beneath the court's fluted columns as the day begins breaking in earnest. "Hitler Would Be Proud," cry their signs. "Your Mercy Is Killing Us." One of the group's mottoes is: "If death is the only choice available -- what kind of choice is that?"
The word "choice" keeps surfacing as two men from opposing protest groups talk at a spot midway between their demonstration sites.
"There's no point when I'm half dead making me stay alive," says Roy R. Torcaso, a white-bearded, withered man from the right-to-die Hemlock Society. "The government has no right to tell me I have to live and suffer."
"People should make their own choices when they live or die," says Richard St. Denis, 42, a Not Dead Yet activist who uses a wheelchair.
"Exactly," says Torcaso.
"Exactly," says St. Denis. And they look at each other funny.
Nearby, a chorus is singing: "We are strong and gentle people, and we are singing for our lives." It is impossible to tell by the lyrics which side of the case they're boosting.
It is 10 a.m., and the oral arguments are beginning inside. Sunlight bubbles up from the marble plaza; there is brightness, but no clarity.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company