Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a.k.a. “Dr. Death,” died the other day, of natural causes and not by his own hand. Dr. Kevorkian was a practitioner of “physician-assisted suicide” and a hero to the euthanasia movement. Ross Douthat has brilliant op-ed piece in the New York Times, no less, that questions his legacy. A sample:
We are all dying, day by day: do the terminally ill really occupy a completely different moral category from the rest? A cancer patient’s suffering isn’t necessarily more unbearable than the more indefinite agony of someone living with multiple sclerosis or quadriplegia or manic depression. And not every unbearable agony is medical: if a man losing a battle with Parkinson’s disease can claim the relief of physician-assisted suicide, then why not a devastated widower, or a parent who has lost her only child?
This isn’t a hypothetical slippery slope. Jack Kevorkian spent his career putting this dark, expansive logic into practice. He didn’t just provide death to the dying; he helped anyone whose suffering seemed sufficient to warrant his deadly assistance. When The Detroit Free Press investigated his “practice” in 1997, it found that 60 percent of those he assisted weren’t actually terminally ill. In several cases, autopsies revealed “no anatomical evidence of disease.”
This record was ignored or glossed over by his admirers. (So were the roots of his interest in euthanasia: Kevorkian was obsessed with human experimentation, and pined for a day when both assisted suicides and executions could be accompanied by vivisection.) After his release from prison in 2007, he was treated like a civil rights revolutionary rather than a killer — with fawning interviews on “60 Minutes,” $50,000 speaking engagements, and a hagiographic HBO biopic starring Al Pacino.
Fortunately, the revolution Kevorkian envisioned hasn’t yet succeeded. Despite decades of agitation, only three states allow some form of physician-assisted suicide. The Supreme Court, in a unanimous 1997 decision, declined to invent a constitutional right to die. There is no American equivalent of the kind of suicide clinics that have sprung up in Switzerland, providing painless poisons to a steady flow of people from around the globe.
Writing in The Atlantic three years ago, Bruce Falconer profiled one such clinic: Dignitas, founded by a former journalist named Ludwig Minelli, which charges around $6,000 for its ministrations. Like Kevorkian, Minelli sees himself as a crusader for what he calls “the last human right.” And like Kevorkian, he sees no reason why this right — “a marvelous possibility given to a human being,” as he describes it — should be confined to the dying. (A study in The Journal of Medical Ethics suggested that 21 percent of the people whom Dignitas helps to commit suicide are not terminally ill.)
But unlike Kevorkian, Minelli has been free to help kill the suicidal without fear of prosecution. In the last 15 years, more than 1,000 people have made their final exit under his supervision, eased into eternity by a glass of sodium pentobarbital.
Were Minelli operating in the United States, he might well have as many apologists and admirers as the late Dr. Death. But it should make us proud of our country that he would likely find himself in prison, where murderers belong.
HT: Gabriel Torretta