Dr. Jack Kevorkian and the Death with Dignity Movement

Jun 11th, 2011 | By | 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

3 Comments to “Dr. Jack Kevorkian and the Death with Dignity Movement”

  1. Bill Pieper says:

    Forgive me, but when you refer to the bible as evidence for any argument, you have a weak argument. The problem with Dr. K, though he was admirable in many ways, is that he did play god. He turned away many, up to ninety percent of those who sought his help, but he also enabled the ending of lives for those who would not begin to qualify under the death with dignity laws of Oregon or Washington.

    So let’s not confuse the two. Legalize and regulate is the way to bring about the maximum good for all concerned. Aid in dying is a choice that all should have but that most will not need or will not avail themselves of. That is the higher morality and the higher respect for human agency. Do not invoke the law to enforce a point of view that you are free to hold while trying to deny others the ability to live and die by their beliefs. Whether you find it in the bible or not, respecting human life means respecting even choices that you yourself would not make, so long as they do not harm anyone but the chooser.

  2. Marie Way says:

    I not only agree with Bill Pieper that the Bible is a weak post upon which to lean, but I will add to his position. It is well known that the Bible was edited centuries ago by church and government officials in an attempt to control the public with fear. On that Christian note, Jesus came here to show us who we really are. He said “Do not worship me, for you can do as I do.” So we forget the sole message he brought to us and disrespect him by killing and then worshiping him. Do not use outdated Christian ideology to defend misguided beliefs. We all have the right to choose, and my God is greater than the Christian God of fear and vengeance. My “God” includes every living creature among his/her children, not just humanity. And my God does not exclude anyone based on their beliefs. Further, my God does not forbid me to use the good mind I was given to educate myself, as the Christians I know refuse to read anything but the Bible, saying God warned them Satan would write books to deceive them. Do these people not know how to think for themselves or how to use their own God-given awareness to discern the difference?!!

    We have quite the debate about the right to life and the right to death, pro-choice and anti-abortion, and it goes on and on. Feed the starving children in third world countries, yet the religion behind these organizations is so pro-life that they will not introduce birth control to these starving nations. I will help feed starving children when their parents are given birth control!! Life at any cost is a cruel and ridiculous notion! Yes, life is a precious gift, but so is death, and it is an individual choice and not something for law or government to mandate. Can it be abused? Anything can be abused. Is water bad because you can drown in it? Of course not. I find the very notion of human laws to be ridiculous! I do not need a law to tell me what I know to be the appropriate way to handle something. I may be angry enough to kill someone, but it is not human law that prevents me from doing so – it is the law in my own heart. We hold the law to be some grand standard by which to live, when in fact, it is God’s law, the enlightened heart of humanity awakening to a higher consciousness that is the only law worthy of respect. This is the gift Jesus brought to us, the seed of awakening to a humanity ruled by its own innate kindness and compassion. And this quality extends to the whole of the planet and all its creatures, not just to the human race.

    As for dear Dr. Kevorkian, he was a hero with a sound and logical argument for choice and a heart of compassion. It does not matter whether one is terminal or not. If life has no quality or even if someone refuses conventional medical treatments, that is an individual choice which, by definition, is not mandated by law. There is no democracy in individual choice because it is simply that – individual, personal and private. Will physician assisted suicide be abused? Probably, but so what? Murder runs rampant throughout the world. So what if someone dies of something like severe depression? Yes, it’s sad if there were some way to have fixed it and that person gave up too soon, but it is still their choice. Are they to die instead like women die of back alley abortions? Or do doctors step up and not only help people live quality lives, but also help people die quality deaths? That is a doctor’s job, and while less money will be made by pharmaceutical companies and hospitals, that would be a step in the right direction. Greed and corruption has ruled this world for far too long! Having said all this, it becomes abundantly clear to me that any argument based in religion or law is patently absurd!

  3. Amy says:

    I read Dr. Kevorkian’s biography as well as many books on the subject of death, dying with dignity, euthanasia, etc. written by so many great writers.

    They are all compassionate, empathetic, and loving human beings—compassionate, empathetic, and loving enough “to not want to see, hear, touch, feel, and sense another wounded human being to suffer unnecessarily and inhumanely” given the wounded person “no longer desired to suffer the way that he or she has been” for whatever reason—does not be have an incurable disease like cancer or virus. Dr. Kevorkian was indeed heroic and compassionate enough to be willing to release the wounds, violations, damages, losses, and injustices that his patients have encountered during their lifetimes. So, when “opponents of the right-to-die movement are not allowing people to die” and “not allowing heroes and compassionate people such as Dr. Kevorkian and all the leaders and participants of the right to die movement and societies to honor the last wish of a wounded human being,” what kind of principles and consciences do these opponents hold? Do they just use irrelevant and inaccurate reasons to deny a human being’s right to make the right and best choice for the sake of his or her well-being during the stage of inhumane torments?

    How dare the opponents of the right-to-die movement judged the quality of life that these wounded human beings were or are having when life simply gave up on them as if their lives truly functioned with incurable cancerous, infected, and uncontrollable cells although they may not have cancer or virus in their biological functions and body systems! Where are the opponents’ hearts, eyes, ears, minds, and spirits for the wounded human beings that have been suffering inhumanely and unnecessarily?

    Nowhere in the bible indicated that “we shall not help when our fellow human beings are in need of our help including giving them what they need the most when they need it” such as “honoring their right and choice to die and assisting them at their voluntary consent!” So, if we have to go against doctors, healthcare providers, family members, close friends, ministers, etc. when they are being compassionate, empathetic, and loving enough to be willing to lessen the unbearable torments that a wounded person is going through, it is “not right, not just, not compassionate, and not humane for us to oppose and deny the right and freedom of the wounded human being” since “it is our duty” and “always will be our duty” to stop another person from undergoing severe distress or inhumane torments anymore!

    In essence, the opponents of the right-to-die movement are indeed playing God or the Devil! They simply want the innocent human beings to suffer until the “inhumane sufferings will bring insanity to the heart, soul, mind, spirit, and body!” Would you call this compassion, just, ethical, reasonable, and humane?
    God never wants us to go through life “when life is no longer life” because it is “no longer sacred, no longer precious and no desirable to live” let alone the wounded human being has tried and tried; and tried so many different ways and still trying, but the outcome will not and have not changed! Therefore, the best and only option for this wounded human being is to exit and ask mercy, compassion, and empathy from God and Society allow the wounded human beings to be free once and for all, so, they would “not have to fight a fight that is not worth fighting for; a fight that has already been lost long ago; a fight that only death could heal and cure their torments!”

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