America puts Plato on trial

Euthanasia is rivalling abortion as the hottest topic of moral debate in the US, reports John Carlin in Chicago
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Responding to a trend that suggests euthanasia will soon rival abortion as the dominant issue of moral debate in the Western world, the annual Chicago Humanities Festival staged a long overdue trial last week. Plato was in the dock, charged with unlawfully assisting in the suicide of Socrates.

The courtroom was a Chicago stage. A real judge presided over the proceedings, and two teams of real lawyers contested the case. A theatre audience of 850 people paid $200 each for the privilege of playing the part of the jury. Plato, sporting a false beard and ancient Greek robes, submitted himself to cross-examination.

"Do you consider yourself above the law?" one of the prosecutors asked. "Yes I do, when the law in a particular place and time does not conform to the highest ideals of justice," Plato replied.

To enhance the contemporary connection with the controversial Jack Kevorkian, the retired American doctor who has assisted in the suicides of 45 mostly terminally ill patients in the past six years, the creators of the fictional trial came up with a felicitous historical rewrite. Some 2,400 years after the event, fresh evidence had emerged which showed Plato had deliberately misrepresented the role he had played in Socrates' death. It turned out that, contrary to the evidence contained in Plato's writings, Socrates had been condemned to death by public stoning - not by poison - for his role in corrupting Athenian youth.

Confronted with the evidence of the cover-up - "Hemlockgate", as the prosecution described it - Plato confessed that he had indeed given his mentor the lethal potion he quaffed to cheat the executioner's rocks. "But this was not an act of passion," Plato pleaded, "it was an act of compassion."

Playing the part of witness for the prosecution was Sister Candida Lund, a redoubtable white-haired nun who is chancellor of Rosary College, a Catholic university in Chicago. Sister Candida argued that Plato, whose works are widely regarded as the foundation of western philosophy,should not be allowed to play God. Should the jury find the defendant not guilty they would be establishing a dangerous precedent.

"You can very easily go from the voluntary to the involuntary," Sister Candida said, "from mercy killing as relief from pain, to assisted suicide for the chronically ill and then to assisted suicide for the emotionally depressed. It's a slippery slope."

In a curious case of art imitating death, a few days after the mock trial Sister Candida's words were poignantly echoed by Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, head of the archdiocese of Chicago and the pre-eminent Catholic clergyman in the United States until he succumbed to cancer on Thursday. The cardinal's dying wish came in the form of a letter entreating the Supreme Court to declare doctor-assisted suicide unlawful.

"Creating a new `right' will endanger society and send a false signal that a less than `perfect' life is not worth living," Cardinal Bernadin wrote to the court, which - in response to the Kevorkian controversy - is scheduled to rule in the coming months as to the legality of euthanasia. "The law exists to protect life. When it begins to legitimate the taking of life one has a right to ask what lies ahead for our life as a society."

The cardinal's letter suggests that organised Christianity means to battle as vigorously against the right to death as it has done in favour of the right to life. And not just in America. In Spain the Catholic Church has been playing a leading role in preventing Ramon Sampedro, a man paralysed in an accident 28 years ago who describes himself as "a living head and no body", from seeking the blessing of the courts for any doctor willing to put an end to his life.

And Holland, as Sister Candida lamented, provided a "chilling" example of what Americans may expect should doctors be allowed to break ranks with Plato's contemporary, Hippocrates, and expand their medical repertoire to include death. She observed that while assisted suicide is illegal in Holland, in practice it is tolerated.

The statistics show that each year Dutch doctors put some 1,500 ill people out of their misery. The Dutch are overwhelmingly in favour of assisted suicide and today the debate in government is not whether to enforce the anti-euthanasia law, but whether to abolish it altogether.

One place where voluntary euthanasia is already legal is in Australia's Northern Territory. Philip Nitschke, the doctor who recently undertook the world's first legal assisted suicide, is so assured of the rightness of what he has done that he means shortly to launch onto the Internet the software and instructions that will enable people to develop their own computerised "death machines".

Even Dr Nitschke does not come close to Dr Kevorkian, however, when it comes to moral certitude and crusading zeal. In the manner of the Christian martyrs of old, "Dr Death" has endured all manner of indignities, cruelties and privations in his stubborn pursuit of what he believes to be a righteous cause.

A frail scarecrow of a man, 68 years old, he stood 10 days ago before a Michigan court, handcuffed and in jailhouse clothes, as he was charged with yet another case of illegal assisted suicide, this time of a multiple sclerosis sufferer called Loretta Peabody whom he helped die in August. Only jail, he told the court, would prevent him from continuing to respond to the calls of patients in torment.

The defence exhibits at the coming trial will include a videotape Mrs Peabody mailed to Dr Kevorkian a few weeks before her death. "There is nothing I can do for myself and I can't do this any more," she said. "I've fought this as long as I could fight it and if it wasn't for you I don't know what I'd do. I have to leave. I cannot live like this. I have no dignity left."

Dr Kevorkian's lawyer has said that the state has no case against his client. In previous cases the doctor has done prosecutors the favour of personally delivering the bodies of his patients to hospitals in the back of his car. This time, on Mrs Peabody's instructions, he had the body cremated before an autopsy could be performed.

In the view of Dr Kevorkian's colleagues this was but one more example of his systematic violation of the essential codes of medical practice. The American Medical Association, and 29 other organisations, joined the late Cardinal Bernadin last week in writing a letter to the nine Supreme Court judges, urging them not to legalise doctor-assisted suicide. But against these powerful institutional voices there is the verdict of the juries in the three trials the doctor has so far undergone, all of which have refused to find him guilty.

As for the Plato trial, the outcome was almost a plebiscite on American popular sentiment. The chief prosecutor, addressing himself in closing argument to the biggest jury ever assembled on US soil, said: "Who decides what is the greater good? The community decides. Justice cannot be determined by one person, even if he acts out of love." The defence, whose case had manifestly been the weaker of the two in strictly legal terms, rested its case on a simpler note: "To let the state decide how we will die is the worst form of tyranny."

Overwhelmingly, in a victory for paganism over Christianity, the jury ruled in favour of Plato.