June 29, 2011 | posted by Stephen Drake
After having pissed off just about every active alcoholic – and people who love them – Roger Ebert came out today with a blog essay that I’m sure he thought would be a crowd pleaser.
Today’s blog essay is titled “Now I lay me down to sleep.”
The short version goes like this – Robert Ebert saw the HBO docudrama about Jack Kevorkian, and – forgetting how much license with the facts docudramas take – figures he really knows Jack Kevorkian now and also knows all that is important about assisted suicide as public policy. As for his own feelings on the subject — he claims the only real objections are religious ones, he’s not religious and he’s fine with it, as long as it’s for terminally ill people who are in pain. He doesn’t seem to realize that’s a narrower set of criteria than the state of Oregon allows. Critical analysis is in short supply in this essay.
Ebert throws around misstatements of fact with abandon, as he does here:
After Paul Schrader assured me Al Pacino’s performance in the film was the best of the year, I rented it from Netflix, and after watching it I realized I didn’t know Jack. He is depicted as tactless, cantankerous, argumentative, and brave. He was not a palatable poster child for assisted suicide, but perhaps it required a man with his single-minded zeal to bring the subject into discussion. He said he helped 130 patients kill themselves. Every time he was brought to trial in one of those cases of assistance, the jury acquitted him. He had kept video records of his interviews with the patients and the actual moments of their death, and jurors apparently agreed that he was providing medical help requested by a terminally ill person. (Emphasis added.)
That’s just plain false. For example, one of the trials in which he was acquitted involved his roles in the deaths of Sherry Miller, who had multiple sclerosis (she’d also been abandoned by her husband and lost custody of her children) and Marjorie Wantz, a woman who experienced pelvic pain. Neither was terminal. Miller, with a condition prone to depression, was also hard hit by her family losses. None of that mattered to the jury – Fieger played up how awful it was to live in a wheelchair and how no one would want to live like that. The jury agreed.
In trying that last case, a prosecutor made a tactical call: He decided to drop charges of assisted suicide, in order to prevent any videos of the patient being seen by a jury. He chose to prosecute only on the narrow charge of murder in the second degree, for which Kevorkian himself had provided the documentary evidence. The doctor was sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison, served eight and a half years, was paroled in 2007, and died on June 3, 2011.
Again, this is just wrong, no matter how confidently Ebert states this. The reason the assisted suicide charges were dropped had nothing to do with video tapes – in fact, the prosecutor used one of Kevorkian’s tapes very effectively in his closing arguments. The tactic was used because it meant testimony from Thomas Youk’s brother and wife wouldn’t be allowed. They weren’t present for the killing and could only testify about “state of mind” – irrelevant when it comes to a murder charge. And as to Kevorkian’s release – it was allegedly for health reasons, after Kevorkian’s attorney filed his fourth yearly brief claiming Kevorkian had less than a year to live.
To be fair, I’ll give Ebert credit for checking Wikipedia for info on Kevorkian and accurately relaying the findings of the Detroit Free Press findings in their series “The Suicide Machine.” But then Ebert goes off and shares crap like this:
Polls showed that the majority of citizens in his state of Michigan supported him, and a poll taken after his death showed that 75% of Canadians approved of assisted suicide for terminal patients in pain.
I’m not sure what poll is being referred to, but the most important poll – I think it was conveniently never mentioned in the docudrama – was a 1998 ballot initiative to legalize assisted suicide. The result? Here’s what a recent article in the Detroit Free Press had to say:
Michiganders, by a more than 2-1 margin, voted down a proposal to legalize assisted suicide in 1998.
I worked with Michigan disability activists who helped to fight against that ballot initiative. I recall that post-election day analysis gave Kevorkian a lot of the blame and/or credit for the defeat of the initiative.
The principal argument against it is religious: God gives life to men, who do not have the right to end it without his will. In a nation which separates church and state, this should not be a valid position. Why should it apply to someone who does not agree with it? If I am in agony, what difference do your beliefs about God make to me? What if I don’t believe in God? What if I believe in a more merciful God, who gave me intelligence, free will and responsibility for my life? Why must I suffer because of your more narrow theology?
Stunningly, Ebert blithely claims that all those people getting in the way of the obviously sensible legalization of assisted suicide are people with a “narrow” theology and perspective.
What a shithead. Ebert recently was honored by Access Living, a prominent Center for Independent Living that serves the disabled people in the City of Chicago. I fear that when they called him a “national leader” it might have gone to his head. As a relative newcomer to the world of disability, he’s done very well, but he really hasn’t got a handle on the rest of the community’s values, perspectives or priorities.
Before Ebert writes on this topic again, I’d suggest he read the Assisted Suicide Position Paper published by the National Council on Disability in 1997 with Marca Bristo serving as Chairperson. Marca Bristo is also the CEO of Access Living.
Several times a year we read of someone who assists a spouse, parent, child or partner to die. Sometimes this results in jail sentences. Much more often, I suspect, it happens silently.
Ebert needs to read the news more carefully. There are out-and-out murders getting written off as murders simply because the victim is old, ill or disabled. Some of this has gone on right in his back yard.
See, for example, “No Mercy” by Mike Miner of the Chicago Reader on some of the biased coverage of murders of an elderly woman and two disabled men. There’s also this detailed analysis of Chicago media coverage of the 2002 murder of Shirley Harrison.
And here is a brief statement about the “blame the victim” coverage of 4-year-old Katie McCarron’s murder in Pekin, IL and its consequences; Katie was autistic.
I don’t expect to get any acknowledgment from Ebert that he got anything wrong. Previous experience during the “Million Dollar Baby” controversy makes it clear that he doesn’t get what the objections are from disability rights activists in this area and why they’re important. More, he’s perfectly willing to pretend that that those objections don’t exist at all.
That’s all for now. By Monday, I’ll be critiquing a review of an Oregon documentary sitting in my DVR. Ebert brought it up and I guess I have to quit putting off watching it. –Stephen Drake