Reflections on the Death of Dr. Jack Kevorkian

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Dr. Jack Kevorkian passed away last Friday. I wish his family and friends God’s blessing and peace. Kevorkian became famous in the 1990’s by creating a suicide machine using drugs that a person would self-administer that would take the person’s life. He assisted over 100 people in taking their own lives before he was convicted for second degree murder and jailed.

Currently, three states in the U.S.—Washington, Montana, and Oregon—all permit physician assisted suicide, as do three countries—the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Last year, the Canadian Parliament defeated a law (C-384) that would have permitted physician assisted suicide nationwide.
Although arguments in favor of assisted suicide appeal to dignity and relief from suffering, they always miss the main point: the sanctity of human life. Whenever people are permitted to seek out the assistance of their doctors to take their own lives, society begins to put pressure on some individuals to bring about this final solution to the challenges they face.
“Subtle, and not so subtle pressures, can be placed upon vulnerable persons with a disability to motivate them to seek a death sanctioned by Bill C-384,” the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD) wrote in opposition to the proposed law before it was defeated. “Assisted suicide is not a free choice as long as [people with disabilities] are denied adequate healthcare, affordable personal assistance in their communities, and equal access to social structures and systems.”
Debates about health care necessarily must discuss costs. These debates frequently point fingers at people with disabilities and older people as culprits in driving up costs. "Preventive medicine drives up the ultimate cost of health care to society by enlarging the population of the elderly and infirm. The child who would have died from polio will grow up to be a very expensive old man or woman.... Good medicine keeps sick people alive, thereby increasing the number of sick people in the population." wrote Willard Gaylin, M.D. and bioethicist in Harpers Magazine, October 1993.
If Christians say that we affirm the sanctity of human life, then we must stand firmly against physician assisted suicide and euthanasia AND stand firmly for good health care and for surrounding with love the people considering this terrible option.
Reflecting on Kevorkian’s death, Raymond Voet a prosecutor who brought Kevorkian to trial in the 1990’s, said, “If you look back at the list of the 130 people he killed, many were mentally disturbed or disabled. They could have lived for years and been brought into society, but a rogue doctor was sending a message that it’s okay to kill yourselves.”
Church communities that really care about the sanctity of human life will ensure that people with disabilities are welcomed into their fellowships. They will provide good care for people facing long-term challenges, not abandoning people who struggle with chronic depression or progressive disabilities or other challenges that get people thinking about suicide in the first place.
When people know that others love them and provide hope to get through another day, when the health care they receive assists them with the challenges they face, then as they consider taking their lives, they’ll be able to say, “Not today.”

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Yes, we must support good health care for all people.  That doesn't mean we can't support physician-assisted suicide.  One would expect a prosecutor to say that “many” of the people Kevorkian assisted  “were mentally disturbed or disabled."  Even if some were this only indicates that when the medical community, not an unsupervised individual like Kevorkian, does this, adequate safeguards must be in place to ensure that people are making an informed, voluntary decision.

A doctor in a congregation I pastored operated on Ron, and I visited Ron in the hospital and at his home.  Ron was not mentally disturbed or disabled.  He struggled with bone and lung cancer for a couple years, became so disabled that he could no longer drive and used a morphine pump to relieve his pain.

One Sunday evening I said to my wife, “I haven’t visited Ron for a while.  I’m going to call him tomorrow to schedule a visit.”  We turned on the evening news and discovered that Ron, with the assistance of Kevorkian, took his life.  So instead of visiting Ron that week I did his funeral. 

In recent years all of us have been urged to have a living will that specifies the medical care we wish/do not wish to receive.  All of us know sane people who have declined chemotherapy and other procedures because they are not interested in extending life that is hardly life.  For Ron life was no longer life.  Some assert that he should have “toughed it out” until he died “naturally.”   Some of us assert that physician-assisted suicide with adequate safeguards is a more humane option.

Guide

George,

What a horrible situation for Ron and his family. I too have walked the valley of the shadow of death with parishioners who passed away from bone cancer. It looks like one of the most horrible ways to die because it is so painful.

However, I’m going to object to your line or reasoning, knowing that doing so will make me sound uncompassionate toward Ron and his family. I’ll take that risk because this issue is so important.

My understanding of the sixth commandment is that suicide is one of the acts that is prohibited by it. It is not an unforgiveable sin as some people say. We all are sinners in need of a savior. A believer who chooses to end his or her own life dies in the Lord and that sin is forgiven. Still, it is prohibited by God, and alternatives should be pursued instead. The quality of palliative care has grown significantly since Ron chose to end his life. Toughing it out may be somewhat less difficult now that it was when Ron was suffering so terribly. My understanding is that our Lord does call us to tough it out rather than take our own lives. Obedience often involves suffering and trial.

Your example of declining chemotherapy and other procedures does not fit in a discussion about assisted suicide. Allowing death to occur by declining treatment or choosing to end some treatment after a period of medical intervention is much different than causing death by a lethal procedure administered to end a human life. To permit death to come is much different than actively bringing about death. I know of someone who, after lengthy consultation and deliberation with medical staff and family, chose to have his ventilator removed. His life was artificially kept by the machine putting air into his lungs. His death came quickly after it was removed. This choice was much different than someone who administers a drug to cause his death.

Finally, as I argued in my blog, assisted suicide is a dangerous, slippery slope. As soon as it becomes an option, some people will feel pressure from family, medical staff, or society to end their own lives because they feel they are a burden, or others feel that they have become a burden. There are no safeguards adequate to prevent this emotional pressure from being applied. Society and family often push people with disabilities to feel that their lives are a burden to others, even though God delights in the lives of every one of his image bearers. For a society to open the door to assisted suicide opens the door for that same society to pressure people who are not considered to be productive or to have adequate “quality of life” to end their lives. That's why the organization Not Dead Yet was created by people with disabilities to fight assisted suicide when Kervorkian was often in the news. They're still active because so called "death with dignity" laws keep getting proposed, and create a grave threat to people living with disabilities, especially severe disabilities.

The naming of specific people and specific situations can break one’s heart and make allowing physician-assisted suicide sound like a compassionate and loving action, but in the end it is another nail in the coffin of a culture of death.

 

Mark, I don’t think you’re uncompassionate.  I think you and I are both compassionate people who have different perspectives on this matter.  I understand how this impacts you differently than it does me because of your daughter and also because of the agency that you administer.

While we must take the sixth commandment seriously, there are exceptions to it.  Most would argue that a just war is one.  Some would argue that capital punishment is another.  Others would argue that the “hard cases” in terms of fetal development is another.  We know there are those who disagree with some or all of these.

The “slippery slope” argument is used very frequently by those who oppose something, It’s not a convincing argument.  An action has to be judged on its own merits, not on what someone thinks might possibly result somewhere down the line if a particular action is taken. 

This morning I went to my local Kroger to return some bottles.  While there, a lady came in and said to me, “I haven’t done this before and don’t know how to do it.  My dear husband always did this and he recently died.”  I expressed my sympathy, showed her how to use the machines and asked if her husband had cancer.  She said, “Yes, bone and lung cancer.”  I told her I had just written about another person who had the same and asked her a bit about her husband’s condition.  She said, “Initially, he always said, “I’m not going to leave you, but things really got bad at the end and he continually said he wished he could die.  The pain was terrible.  He was on a morphine pump.  He went blind.”

I asked: “If it were legal, would he have wanted a physician to give him an injection to end his life?”  She replied, “Oh yes.”  I asked, “What about you?  Would you have wanted the same.”  Again she replied, “Oh, yes.”  I told her I had a friend who thought that if we permitted this it would be a slippery slope and soon people would be calling for the death of those who had various disabilities.  A man who was also returning bottles said, “It hasn’t happened in Europe.”

I don’t know if that’s true or not.  I suppose some statistics are available, and I also suppose that like statistics from Kevorkian’s prosecutor, one has to consider the source of the statistics.  I also understand that your concern goes beyond identifiable statistics to a subtle and not so easily identifiable pressure because of a ”climate of death.” That’s a legitimate concern, but it can’t be the determining factor.

George:  did you read the recent N.Y. Times editorial (not exactly a regressive news rag). It noted that a Detroit newspaper did an investigative piece of journalism that substantially supports Mark's citation on prosecuting attorneys.

In addition, I would commend for your reading the Atlantic article from a couple of years ago cited in the N.Y Times op-ed piece on the Swiss death clinic.  Scary, in my opinion.

 I am sure you understand that your comment about prosecuting attorneys constituted what we learned in Philosophy 101 as an ad hominem argument.

You neglected to note that even if prosecuting attorneys are not credible, for Kervorkian to be convicted, someone other than them needed to listen to the arguments and convict him.

My position comes from a Gerontology Social Work class under Dr. Holstege of Calvin College in which he cited the tremendous advances in pallative care that may have escaped your attention.  His point: use pallative care pharmeceuticals to relieve pain, if the person passes away under their application be thankful their passing was as painless as possible.  This is a far different objective than Kervorkian or the Swiss clinic.

Why cannot the "climate of death" be a significant "determining factor?"  Sounds like an a priori argument.

Guide

I assume that precherkid is referring to "Dr. Kervorkian's Victims." Here's a lengthy quote which includes evidence corroborating the quote I gave from the prosecuting attorney:

And once we allow that such a right [a right to suicide] exists, the arguments for confining it to the dying seem arbitrary at best. 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.”

One could argue that Kervorian was a loose cannon, and that proper safeguards would prevent this kind of reckless disregard for human life. However, the little that I've read about the practice of assisted suicide and euthanasia in Netherlands indicate that many of these deaths happen without the consent of the one killed. I realize that many people drag out the slippery slope argument whenever it conveniently fits their case, but in this case when social and financial costs get involved many people do indeed feel a pressure to die, or even are put to death without their consent.

 

Mark, “Death With Dignity” acts are designed for terminal patients.  Now you give us a quote which puts all of us in their category by saying that all of us are dying and wonders why a person who has lost her only child shouldn’t be allowed to end her life.  Such comments remind me of those of a person who said in a discussion about the “hard cases” in terms of fetal development, “So why not remove that protection from other groups, say people that live in New Hampshire, or grocers, or people with a hair color we don't like, or Jews, or lawyers.”  Such comments make serious discussion impossible.

And to talk about Kevorkian’s practices as if they represent what is being proposed in a number of states is terribly unfair.  You even realize that because you say ‘”One could argue that Kevorkian was a loose cannon…” An article in the June 5 New York Times quotes a lawyer who helped draft Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act: “Under the Oregon Death with Dignity Act, we would have put him in jail.”

Oregon’s Death with Dignity Acts was passed in 1997.  “Since the act was passed, 525 people have ended their lives under its auspices, according to the state’s 2010 annual report.” Oregon’s law “includes requirements that the patient be at the end stage of terminal disease and not have psychiatric disorders like depression, and that the patient take the drugs used in the procedure without help, to ensure that the act is voluntary from start to finish.”  Doesn’t sound as if people are being put to death without their consent.