The legacy of Dr. Death

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.

via Dr. Kevorkian’s Victims – NYTimes.com.

HT:  Gabriel Torretta

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Dennis Peskey

    As a resident of the State of Michigan (and one who suffered with the deadly folly of Mr. Kevorkian), I concur wholeheartly with Ross Douthat’s op-ed piece. I am unsure of the legacy Dr. Veith makes reference; around these parts Mr. Kevorkian is known as a convicted felon, a dangerous and deadly man who had to be monitored up to his death, and we do not apply any other title (other than felon or murderer) – his medical license was revoked for obvious cause; ergo, Mr. Kevorkian did not enjoy any medical status (such as Doctor) at the time of his death. He died a convicted felon.
    Pax,
    Dennis

  • Dennis Peskey

    As a resident of the State of Michigan (and one who suffered with the deadly folly of Mr. Kevorkian), I concur wholeheartly with Ross Douthat’s op-ed piece. I am unsure of the legacy Dr. Veith makes reference; around these parts Mr. Kevorkian is known as a convicted felon, a dangerous and deadly man who had to be monitored up to his death, and we do not apply any other title (other than felon or murderer) – his medical license was revoked for obvious cause; ergo, Mr. Kevorkian did not enjoy any medical status (such as Doctor) at the time of his death. He died a convicted felon.
    Pax,
    Dennis

  • Matthew Surburg

    As a physician, the tenure of Jack Kevorkian and the adoring treatment he was given by the media have long filled me with revulsion. I agree with Dennis that we should not refer to him as “Doctor” (although technically, the degree and the license are two different things), because to me that title reflects one who, despite his own fallibility and weakness, strives to relieve the suffering of others. That is not the same as killing another person because you think (or even because he thinks) his suffering is too much.

    Physical pain can be controlled. For those who are dying of pulmonary conditions, the horrible sense of being persistently short of breath (referred to as “air hunger”) can also be relieved. It may require strong medications, and these can have side effects. These side effects may even include hastening of a dying process which is already underway. This is still distinctly different from deliberately killing someone.

    For one who does attempt suicide (whether or not he succeeds), the real issue is not pain but hopelessness. The sense that what he is suffering is without reason, beyond hope, and without anyone to bear the burden with him is what drives him to suicide. However, this despair is the emotion of a moment – though that moment may be long. What is needed in these cases is genuine compassion (literally, “suffering with”) along with medical care which aims to minimize the physical symptoms as much as possible. What is not helpful is the callousness which cruelly tells the sufferer that he is worse than useless and should relieve others of the burden that he has become.

    That said, I have read many well-intentioned efforts by Christians, including Lutherans, to wax rhapsodic about the blessings of suffering. I think frequently of the great line from “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Never was philosopher that could bear the toothache patiently.” We don’t know why God allows us to suffer. We don’t know what blessing there may be, or whether there even is any. Sometimes, frankly, it seems pointless. Nevertheless, this does not give us the liberty to claim for ourselves authority to transgress the simple, unambiguous “Thou shalt not kill.”

  • Matthew Surburg

    As a physician, the tenure of Jack Kevorkian and the adoring treatment he was given by the media have long filled me with revulsion. I agree with Dennis that we should not refer to him as “Doctor” (although technically, the degree and the license are two different things), because to me that title reflects one who, despite his own fallibility and weakness, strives to relieve the suffering of others. That is not the same as killing another person because you think (or even because he thinks) his suffering is too much.

    Physical pain can be controlled. For those who are dying of pulmonary conditions, the horrible sense of being persistently short of breath (referred to as “air hunger”) can also be relieved. It may require strong medications, and these can have side effects. These side effects may even include hastening of a dying process which is already underway. This is still distinctly different from deliberately killing someone.

    For one who does attempt suicide (whether or not he succeeds), the real issue is not pain but hopelessness. The sense that what he is suffering is without reason, beyond hope, and without anyone to bear the burden with him is what drives him to suicide. However, this despair is the emotion of a moment – though that moment may be long. What is needed in these cases is genuine compassion (literally, “suffering with”) along with medical care which aims to minimize the physical symptoms as much as possible. What is not helpful is the callousness which cruelly tells the sufferer that he is worse than useless and should relieve others of the burden that he has become.

    That said, I have read many well-intentioned efforts by Christians, including Lutherans, to wax rhapsodic about the blessings of suffering. I think frequently of the great line from “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Never was philosopher that could bear the toothache patiently.” We don’t know why God allows us to suffer. We don’t know what blessing there may be, or whether there even is any. Sometimes, frankly, it seems pointless. Nevertheless, this does not give us the liberty to claim for ourselves authority to transgress the simple, unambiguous “Thou shalt not kill.”

  • LAJ

    For an excellent chapter on suffering, read Phillip Cary’s book “Good News for Anxious Christians.” It’s the one with “joy” in the title. He agrees with you Matthew.

  • LAJ

    For an excellent chapter on suffering, read Phillip Cary’s book “Good News for Anxious Christians.” It’s the one with “joy” in the title. He agrees with you Matthew.

  • DonS

    When he was active, before his conviction, I would wonder whether he would have gleefully worked alongside of Josef Mengele had he been a physician in the Third Reich. It never struck me that his interest in death and suffering was rooted in compassion, but rather obsession.

  • DonS

    When he was active, before his conviction, I would wonder whether he would have gleefully worked alongside of Josef Mengele had he been a physician in the Third Reich. It never struck me that his interest in death and suffering was rooted in compassion, but rather obsession.

  • ELB

    I was reminded recently that into any discussion of premeditated suicide to relieve one’s own suffering, we are obliged to bring into the discussion the eternal suffering of hell. “No murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”

  • ELB

    I was reminded recently that into any discussion of premeditated suicide to relieve one’s own suffering, we are obliged to bring into the discussion the eternal suffering of hell. “No murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”

  • John C

    “But it should make us proud of our country that he would likely find himself in prison, where murderers belong.”
    And in due course, executed, as were 114 prisoners in the US last year.

  • John C

    “But it should make us proud of our country that he would likely find himself in prison, where murderers belong.”
    And in due course, executed, as were 114 prisoners in the US last year.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    DonS (@4), I was just wondering what your guess was as to Kevorkian’s true motivation. Thanks for telling us. Now I feel like I truly understand his heart.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    DonS (@4), I was just wondering what your guess was as to Kevorkian’s true motivation. Thanks for telling us. Now I feel like I truly understand his heart.

  • Jeremy

    “I was reminded recently that into any discussion of premeditated suicide to relieve one’s own suffering, we are obliged to bring into the discussion the eternal suffering of hell. “No murderer has eternal life abiding in him.””

    Interesting. So you believe all people who committed suicide are in hell right now?

  • Jeremy

    “I was reminded recently that into any discussion of premeditated suicide to relieve one’s own suffering, we are obliged to bring into the discussion the eternal suffering of hell. “No murderer has eternal life abiding in him.””

    Interesting. So you believe all people who committed suicide are in hell right now?

  • Jeremy

    “I was just wondering what your guess was as to Kevorkian’s true motivation”

    I’ve never understood the Religious Right’s motivation. These are people who are in constant agony, and through some cruel trick of nature their body has remained alive. What is the purpose is keeping them alive in torment? Should we adopt the same standard for dogs and cats as well, and allow them to suffer to the very end?

  • Jeremy

    “I was just wondering what your guess was as to Kevorkian’s true motivation”

    I’ve never understood the Religious Right’s motivation. These are people who are in constant agony, and through some cruel trick of nature their body has remained alive. What is the purpose is keeping them alive in torment? Should we adopt the same standard for dogs and cats as well, and allow them to suffer to the very end?

  • Purple Koolaid

    Jeremy, did you read the article?? Some of them are not even sick!!
    If someone wants to kill themselves, why do they need a doctor to help them?? They can do it themselves.

  • Purple Koolaid

    Jeremy, did you read the article?? Some of them are not even sick!!
    If someone wants to kill themselves, why do they need a doctor to help them?? They can do it themselves.

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