Dr. Jack Kevorkian and the Death with Dignity MovementJun 11th, 2011 | By Dr. Jim Eckman | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events
Dr. Jack Kevorkian died last week at the age of 83. He had assisted in about 130 suicides in the 1990s and thereby symbolized the right-to-die movement that gained strength during that decade. [Doctor-assisted suicide has gained legitimacy in Oregon, Washington and Montana, but in no other states of the union.] He was a Michigan pathologist who would hook up patients to his homemade suicide machine. Some died of lethal injection, while others were strapped to a face mask that was connected to a carbon-monoxide canister. The patients would control when they killed themselves. He was stripped of his pathology license in 1991 and eluded authorities for nearly a decade, emerging from four trials unscathed. In September 1998, Kevorkian killed a patient who was too weak to do it alone. He was found guilty and sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison. After eight years, he was released in 2007, promising to perform no more assisted suicides.
Columnist Ross Douthat adds a needed perspective to Kevorkian’s methodology and passion for doctor-assisted suicide. Kevorkian did not just provide death to the dying; he aided anyone whose suffering seemed sufficient to warrant his kind of assistance. “When The Detroit Free Press investigated his ‘practice’ in 1997, it found that 60% 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. . . 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.” By God’s grace, America has not embraced Kevorkian’s perverse vision of a dignified death. But consider the suicide clinics that have sprung up in Switzerland. One such clinic is run by a man named Ludwig Minelli, which charges about $6,000 for this service. A recent study has shown that 21% of those whom Minelli helps are not terminally ill. In the last 15 years, more than 1,000 people have been assisted by Minelli in their desire to die. Is this really the kind of civilization we desire to build? Is there really a right to die in this manner? Is this really what is meant by death with dignity?
In my book, Christian Ethics in a Postmodern World, I offer several insights on how we should think about euthanasia. A believer in Jesus Christ has a very different view of death. Death in Scripture is clearly the judgment of God upon sin. God told Adam that if he ate of the tree in the garden, he would die. When he and Eve ate, they both experienced the separation from God that resulted from sin and eventual physical death (see narrative in Genesis 2 and 3). Sin gains authority over humans, therefore, and results in separation from God–death. The death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ dealt the death-blow to sin and rendered death inoperative in the believer’s life. Because Jesus conquered death through His resurrection, the believer need not fear death. Although that person may die physically (the soul separated from the body), it is not permanent because of the promised resurrection. Hence, Paul can write in 1 Corinthians 15:54-55, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The believer in Jesus Christ therefore faces death with tension. Paul gives us a window into this tension when he writes, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Death means to be with Jesus and to have all the daily struggles, both physical and spiritual, over. Although inexplicable, death is the door Christians go through to be with Christ. There is no other way, barring Christ’s return for his church, for the believer to be with Christ. There is, therefore, the constant pull of heaven matched by the constant pull to remain and serve the Lord on earth. Death remains in the sovereign hand of God and when it comes the believer, although anxious and perhaps frightened, trusts the words of Scripture, “To be absent from the body, is to be present with the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:3).
At the same time, the Bible teaches that every person, believer and unbeliever, is inherently dignified and worthy of respect. It is always proper and ethically right to fight for life. That is because men and women are created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27). Human life is sacred (Genesis 9:1-6) and no one should be demeaned or cursed (James 3:9-10). To treat a human, who bears God’s image, in an undignified manner, to wantonly destroy life or to assume the position of authority over life and death of another human, is to step outside of God’s revelation. The Bible affirms the intrinsic worth and equal value of every human life regardless of its stage or condition. In a word, this is the Judeo-Christian view of life. What are some implications of this high view of life? First, it seems logical that life is so valuable it should be terminated only when highly unusual considerations dictate an exception. In the Netherlands, for example, the Parliament has empowered doctors to help individuals commit suicide if they are suffering from terminal illnesses and even if they are struggling with certain emotional/mental disorders. Dr. Jack Kevorkian had helped 130 people commit suicide, some of whom were suffering from clinical depression. It is difficult to justify such actions from Scripture. Such practices cheapen life, treat a human as of little value and with no dignity. In short, to allow widespread euthanasia is to foster a culture of death. Another implication of the Judeo-Christian view of life is that personhood is defined in biological terms. A human is a person whose life begins at conception, not at birth. “Personhood” is not defined according to I.Q., a sense of the future, a capacity to relate to other humans or any other such criteria. The point is that God creates the life, defines its beginning as conception and sustains the life. Humans who believe His Word will maintain the same view and always fight for life. To end life in a pre-meditated manner, as did Dr. Kevorkian or as is legitimized in doctor-assisted suicide, violates the Bible’s high view of life.
ANOTHER ALTERNATIVE: THE CHRISTIAN HOSPICE: This Perspective has rejected the propensity of present culture to re-define “personhood” and justify euthanasia. However, what does a Christian do when a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal disease? What does one do if someone dear develops Alzheimer’s disease or Huntingdon’s disease? What if extremely painful cancer develops and the only promise is months or years of pain only to be followed by death? There is no easy answer but the Christian hospice movement is offering a powerful alternative for Christians today. Sometimes in a facility like a home or sometimes by providing care within the patient’s own home, care for the dying patient is provided. It involves managing pain with drugs, giving loving comfort and providing daily service to meet all human needs, whatever the specific situation. The care is complemented by spiritual encouragement from God’s Word, mixed with prayer and edifying opportunities as reminders of God’s goodness and of eternal life. Death is not easy but the Christian approaches death differently than the unbeliever. The loving, empathetic, nail-scarred hands of Jesus are outstretched to welcome His child home to heaven. Hospice care provides the dignified alternative that honors God’s creation–life–all the while preparing the dying saint for the promise that awaits them. It preserves the dignity of life that the mercy killers and Dr. Kevorkians promise but cannot deliver.
See Ross Douthat in the New York Times (6 June 2011); Tim Devaney in the Washington Times (5 June 2011); and James P. Eckman, Christian Ethics in a Postmodern World, pp. 29-33. PRINT PDF