FEW THINGS TERRIFY ME AS MUCH as the thought of being kept alive, indefinitely — hooked to machines, monitored, maintained and held in the land of the living long past the point at which the joy of living has ceased.
I worry less about death than I do about pain. It may be appointed unto us once to die, but needless suffering seems avoidable. Hence, my support for assisted suicide, an issue that strikes at the root of how and why we govern ourselves, and whether there is any collective response to an individual’s death that seems just.
Connecticut lawmakers are poised to consider legislation making physician-assisted suicide legal. Three states permit it: Oregon, Washington and Montana. In November, voters in Massachusetts narrowly rejected a ballot initiative in favor of assisted suicide.
The U.S. Supreme Court has decided there is no federal constitutional right to end one’s own life.
The jurisprudence is mystifying. On the federal level, we are told we have no right to die — that right isn’t in the Constitution. No surprise. The federal government was supposed to be one of limited powers. Transforming government into the moral equivalent of Victor Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s mad scientist dabbling in the dark art of creating something from nothing, spirit from matter, was far from the minds of the Framers.
The states, however, have a general police power, the ability to make laws governing the health, education and welfare of their citizens. Much of this law was smuggled into this country by British colonists, carrying lock, stock and barrel such medieval conceits as sovereign immunity, and the notion that life is a gift from God that no person can reject: How dare the pot say to the potter, why makest me thus?
My heavens are star-filled, mysterious, infinite, but silent. Neither God nor gods nor the fates have decreed some destiny that I am duty bound to accept. If I am wrong, and I find myself on the wrong side of the eternal once I pass through death’s door, I am willing to face that without the humdrum hand of the state leading me along the path of righteousness.
Suffering isn’t a civic duty. We yield too much to the state when we give it the power to tell us we must live. The state does not share the scent of the divine or the immortal. It is a necessary evil, our most enduring fiction.
I’ve appeared in court countless times on behalf of an individual facing allegations made by the state. But I have never met this entity on whose behalf we prosecute, and even kill, one another. Yes, there are prosecutors, police, judges, lawmakers, and all the paraphernalia of this thing we call the state. But search for it all you like; you will never find it. It does not breathe, it has no pulse. It is a symbol through which others act.
We need this abiding fiction for the sake of roads, education and public safety — the mundane affairs of the living. But, in a republic, the state has no priestly function: I don’t want it policing the boundaries between life and death.
Yes, there should be laws against murder, and murderers deserve punishment — although I doubt justice requires the institutionalized savagery of the lengthy sentence we now routinely impose. I don’t mind paying taxes to support a police force that will keep me safe.
But the state does not own my soul. When my body fails, when my spirit wanes, I don’t want to be kept tethered to a civil weal. Let me go if I am prepared to leave. Life is not a prison from which only God can free us.
Powerful instrumental reasons support limits on physician-assisted suicide. We value individual life and fear that assisted suicide might yield an embrace of euthanasia. So long as the barrier between life and death is kept absolute, with the law presuming that all suicides are irrational and therefore prohibited as a matter of law, no door is opened to the too easy conclusion that an unwilling person should be compelled to die.
It is appointed unto us once to die, the good book says. The Greeks were prosaic: all men are mortal, the syllogism goes. And it is so. We come, we go, and the space between our coming and going is this thing we call life. It is glorious, not to be shunned lightly.
But life is no gift of the state.
Connecticut should pass legislation permitting physician-assisted suicide. No compelling state interest requires gratuitous suffering. A physician oath-bound to do no harm does not violate that oath by serving the inevitable end of life. A law requiring careful and cautious review of a decision to seek assisted suicide can honor the value we place on life, while paying homage to autonomy and respect for individuals.
The point, Socrates once said, is not merely to live, but to live well. The state has no business policing the boundaries of life and death once a person decides it’s time to go.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., might be one of those understated legal geniuses who see things in life’s tawdry fact patterns the rest of us miss. Or maybe he’s just the son of a famous man, former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who rode his daddy’s coattails all the way into a job that’s just too big for his meager talents. Gauging by his office’s performance in the Anna Gristina case, I am not checking the genius box when it comes time to cast a ballot for Vance.
Ms. Gristina was charged by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office earlier this year with promoting prostitution. At her arraignment, prosecutors from Vance’s office stood in the well of Judge Juan Merchan’s courtroom and made a star of Ms. Gristina: she has made millions of dollars as a high-class, high-end prostitute to the wealthy in Manhattan; she has friends in high places, and is close to those who hold the reins of power in the city; she’s operated a brothel out of an Upper East Side apartment. Vance’s minion’s transformed Ms. Gristina into a prep schooler’s wet dream; she was everything money could buy.
So Vance prosecuted the fantasy.
Ms. Gristina was picked up off a Manhattan Street and held incommunicado by lawmen in the DA’s public corruption unit. If she’d play ball with Vance, things might go easy for her. The cheap suits promised her leniency if she’d but give them a name or two. Ms. Gristina gave nothing, so she was locked up.
She was arrested months after an undercover cop took $2,000 of taxpayer’s money to arrange for a threesome with two young women. The man watched the women engage in cunnilingus, secretly recording them, and then left -- a little justice interruptus.
Ms. Gristina was held on a $2 million bond at Riker’s Island for more than four months, until the New York Appellate Court found the bond obscene and slapped at Vance’s office in a humiliating rebuke.
Public corruption prosecutors dangled the prospect of leniency before Ms. Gristina throughout the proceedings. Give us a name or two, they’d suggest, and this might be but a bad dream. Throughout the proceedings, it became apparent that the prostitution prosecution was but a pretext for an investigation of Vance’s preoccupation with corruption in his own office, or in the police department, or in the judiciary.
I represented Ms. Gristina throughout most of the proceedings. I never once was given access to any of the evidence Vance’s office claims support the extravagant claims raised by prosecutors in open court. Ms. Gristina’s millions? A fantasy, I suspect. Her decade’s long history of marketing to the lust of the leisure class? Not once did the prosecution produce a document, a name, anything, to substantiate its claim – it was almost as though Vance was afraid to offend the big money boys. Ms. Gristina’s connection to the power elite? Another dead end.
In the end, the case came down to a two-bit prosecution made possible by a sting operation, a case in which a lawman played the role of John, wired up, and produced audiotapes and videotapes of a horny guy looking to "be with" not one girl, but two. How many hundreds of thousands of dollars did Manhattan spend on this dead-end investigation?
Ms. Gristina pled guilty to a low-level felony. She promoted prostitution. She was sentenced to time served and walked out of the courthouse doors a free woman.
Before she walked out the courthouse door, Vance’s office had already prepared a written statement, declaring victory. Vance’s public relations mongrel growled that there is nothing glamorous about prostitution. Ms. Gristina rented women’s bodies. She is nothing more than a pimp.
Does Vance really think he won this case? Who’s the real pimp here? He spent a fortune hounding Ms. Gristina and got nothing other than what he paid, with tax dollars, to procure – a live peep show for a cop wearing a wire.
The District Attorney is elected in Manhattan. Just why anyone would vote for Cy Vance, Jr., is a mystery. In one case after another his office promises the world, and delivers a dud. Can the city really afford to nourish this man’s fantasy life?
Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.