Did Dr. Kevorkian Win in the End?
“If as Christians we believe that humans have inherent dignity, we can’t euthanize when people are not perfect anymore.”
Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the Michigan pathologist dubbed Dr. Death, set the death rattle in motion at the end of life. He was the doctor who advocated for assisted suicide in the 1990’s and killed at least 130 patients between 1990-1998.
Euthanasia is illegal in most of the United States but allowed in Washington DC, California, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington, and its status is disputed in Montana. Last year, a Gallop Poll reported that 69% percent agree that a doctor should be allowed to end a patient's life by painless means if the patient requests it, up from 36% in 1950. Although, who can trust polls these days?
If Kevorkian succeeded in making assisted suicide more acceptable, it could be argued that he won. But in reality, we all lost much.
Dr. Death’s Roster
In 1987 Kevorkian started advertising in Detroit newspapers as a physician consultant for “death counseling.” His first known assisted suicide was a 54-year-old woman in 1990 diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Murder charges were dropped because there were no laws in Michigan against assisted suicide but his medical license was revoked.
According to a report by the Detroit Free Press, 60% of the patients Kevorkian helped die were not terminally ill, at least 13 had no pain, and at least 19 died within 24 hours of meeting him; 5 of which had histories of depression. At least 17 patients had complained of chronic pain but were not referred for pain management and at least three autopsies showed no sign of disease.
On the November 22, 1998 broadcast of CBS News' 60 Minutes, Kevorkian aired a videotape he made the previous September 17 of the assisted killing of Thomas Youk, 52, who was in the final stages Lou Gehrig’s disease. During the videotape, Kevorkian dared the authorities to try to convict him or stop him. So they did.
In 1999, Kevorkian was found guilty of second-degree murder and the delivery of a controlled substance for administering the lethal injection and sentenced to 10–25 years in prison. He served 8 years.
Kevorkian died in 2011 from pulmonary thrombosis when a blood clot lodged in his heart; proof that he had one. I would not want to meet God with his resume. If it’s true that an artist’s work is a reflection of his soul, Kevorkian’s oil painting hobby reflected that he was in a very dark place long before he died.
The Value of Life Until the End
On May 5, 1980 Saint Pope John Paul II published the Declaration on Euthanasia. He stated: “No one can make an attempt on the life of an innocent person without opposing God's love for that person, without violating a fundamental right, and therefore without committing a crime of the utmost gravity.”
Dr. Jodi Roller is dean of the School of Health Sciences at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota that includes a graduate program in bioethics, which explores today’s health care ethics. Her first husband Joe died naturally of Lou Gehrig’s disease. “The value of life until the end often gets lost regardless of beliefs,” Roller explained. According to her, assisted suicide cheats people out of the last days where there are often closures and reconciliations and the expression of a deep love.
“We are so afraid of those times, we would rather not do it,” Roller said. If there is a fear of agonizing pain, she said pain relief is available and even the Church advocates for that.
“If as Christians we believe that humans have inherent dignity, we can’t euthanize when people are not perfect anymore,” she said.
“Those in healthcare know very well that taking care of the sick—the least of our brothers—has a tremendous effect on our own lives. It’s what we are born to do.”
Roller said that during Joe’s decline, people would reach out and touch him in church as they went by and found many ways to show compassion. She said that caring for others makes us better as individuals and as a culture. “I would never call death beautiful—I call it valuable,” Roller said. “Euthanasia would be robbing us of something we have no right to take.”
Endings Should Include Relationship
Barbara Golder graduated from medical school in 1977 as a pathologist, and also became a lawyer in1988. She is a Catholic convert very active in the faith, earning certification in healthcare ethics in 2014 from the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and served 4 years on the US Catholic Council of Bishop’s National Advisory Council. Golder has lectured and taught both doctors and lawyers for 20 years.
Making assisted suicide illegal is not enough according to her. “We should strive for a culture in which it is unthinkable because human dignity is honored and we participate in each other’s lives enough that the idea of suicide is not attractive,” Golder said. “Christians and people of goodwill regardless of faith, need to respect life and the dignity of people through relationships.”
Medical care should be about healing and dying should be about relationships, Golder explained. “I think it’s important that we take a look at our part in this,” Golder said. “That’s one reason I included a storyline in which there are many facets from physician assisted suicide to experimentation on the suffering to isolation of the sick.”
It’s not enough to say, “You’re wrong about this!” according to Golder. “I think it is just as important—maybe more so—to understand what is driving the movement so that we can maybe be a bridge for the Holy Spirit to find his way into another heart.”