John Jay Hooker is a familiar name in the state of Tennessee. Until recently he had been described in a tongue and cheek manner as a political gadfly and perennial candidate. A gifted orator, born to a prominent family, Hooker’s verbiage often got him in trouble as in 2010 when he had his law license suspended for thirty days and was publicly censored for filing frivolous law suits and making statements regarding judges with “reckless disregard of their truth or falsity.” Hooker is known for championing his causes with passion and flamboyance. Now in his eighties and diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer, he is now being revered as Tennessee’s version of Brittany Maynard as he seeks to bring physician assisted suicide to his home state.
Tennessee, along with 45 other states, outlaws physician assisted suicide. This should not to be confused a patient’s right to decline treatments or use living wills to stipulate what measures they want used to keep them alive. It also does not prohibit the use of palliative care which has the purpose of relieving pain until natural death occurs. Physician assisted suicide would allow a doctor, upon request, to give a prescription for a lethal drug with to end the life of the patient. They alleviate pain by killing the patient.
A bill was introduced in the TN General Assembly earlier in the year by Democrats as a courtesy to Hooker and met with a lukewarm but polite response. It promptly was assigned to a summer study committee, a tactic used to gently end discussion. Hooker, who never gently ends any discussion, brought a lawsuit against the state arguing that the law forbidding assisted suicide as unconstitutional, citing the privacy clause in the state constitution to attempt to accomplish by judicial fiat what could not get done in the legislative body answerable to the people. That tactic has been used successfully before by the ACLU and Planned Parenthood to wipe out restrictions around legalized abortions passed by the state legislature. It took 14 years and amending the state constitution to correct this.
The liberal editorial board of the Tennessean quickly endorsed physician assisted suicide and lionized Hooker as a civil rights champion, not mentioning his earlier ties to the paper. They praised his fiery rhetoric as they endorsed him and his cause.
“At last month’s TedX Nashville conference, Hooker gave a rousing speech concerning his desire to take his life with a physician’s help, and it earned him a standing ovation after he recited at the end Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous words: “Free at last, free at last.”
I sat through the two hour court case heard in Chancery Court on July 10th by Chancellor Carol McCoy. The state’s main argument was straightforward and asked the judge to dismiss the suit since public policy matters should be decided in the General Assembly and not the courts. They pointed out the state’s compelling interest in preserving all life and warned of the eroding protections for the vulnerable population that may be at risk with the overturning of this protective law. The poor, elderly, disabled, and mentally deficient citizens would be endangered as the right to duty quickly morphs into the duty to die. Allowing assisted suicide would also erode the trust between patient and doctor who would go from healer to executioner.
What astounded me most about the arguments from the lawyers supporting assisted suicide was the amount of time spent on telling emotional stories laced with extreme hyperbole of slow, painful deaths emphasizing the discomfort of family members having to watch loved ones lose their bodily functions and dignity instead of focusing on legal merits of their argument. The hyperbole included a paper from a Vanderbilt professor describing a sick old woman (later identified as his mother) who stored up sleeping pills for her suicide and her distress when she could not find them at the appropriate time.
When they did mention the merits of the case using the law, they argued that the Constitution should be an evolving and growing document that responds to changing times and poll numbers. They referenced the growing aging population and said this may be in great demand by this age group! Or do they mean in demand for this age group? Slip of the tongue?? Their other legal argument centered on a privacy clause in the state constitution and that the current language in the law forbidding assisted suicide was vague.
Mr. Hooker seemed larger than life in the courtroom, though not speaking all cameras were trained on his every expression as his lawyer used terms as “rendezvous with death” and spoke of his desire to have dignity and die at home surrounded by loved ones. While no one is challenging his right to discontinue treatments, the lawyer suggested that having a script for a lethal dosage may give someone like him the courage to go for the experimental trial, knowing they had the backup plan of the lethal meds at the ready. His lawyer stoked fear insisting not allowing assisted suicide was like murder forcing the patient to endure a slow death. He referred to the refusal to allow this like being in hell continually tormented by the devil!
I cringed at weak and inappropriate attempts at humor comparing those who have a fear of flying smuggling small bottles of vodka on the plane to ease their fear. I was most offended when they suggested that we are kinder to dogs that we put down with sorrow in our hearts. So much for the sanctity of human life!
After two hours of testimony, the Chancellor did not give her ruling pending the submission of supplemental briefs from each side. She promised to do her best to expedite her decision noting that time was of the essence for Hooker.
As Mr. Hooker exited the courtroom, he was surrounded by reporters and cameras. He stopped to give a statement that was run on many media outlets. Also exiting the courtroom in wheelchairs or with assistance, many representing Not Dead Yet or other disability rights organizations, were largely ignored as they silently made their way past the crowd. So this was the marketing of the culture of death.
As someone who lost a spouse to a malignant brain tumor and currently married to a man who also lost his first wife to the same brain tumor, we can attest that you can die a natural death, surrounded by loved ones in your own home and with the assistance of palliative care. The memory of every day, hour and minute was precious. They were the true heroes who had death with dignity.