Jack Kevorkian, known as “Doctor Death” for assisting patients he deemed terminally ill to end their lives, has died. Kevorkian claimed to have “assisted” in at least 130 suicides, beginning in 1990. He was charged with murder four times, being acquitted in three cases and having a mistrial declared in another.
On March 26, 1999 Kevorkian was charged with second degree murder after administering a lethal injection to ALS victim Thomas Youk, at Mr. Youk’s request. He was convicted and sentenced to 10 to 25 years in jail, but paroled in 2007 after serving just 8 years.
Kevorkian brought the debate on euthanasia front and center in America and was willing to be jailed to make his point. At a time when medical science was offering more and more ways to extend life, but often not offering any improved quality of life, Kevorkian argued that an individual should be able to actively decide to die.
Despite his passion and his willingness to use civil disobedience to change the way we view suffering and death, there are many problems with Kevorkian’s view of the proper place of euthanasia in the world.
First, it neglects the way in which his own psyche might have colored that view. Kevorkian was utterly fascinated by death. His mother had fled and survived the Armenian death marches organized by Muslim Turks during the early part of the 20th century.
He decided to become a pathologist. That means that he elected a medical specialty focused on diseased tissues and ones from dead bodies. Pathology is a fascinating and important field, but, when one adds to Kevorkian’s specialty interest the fact that he photographed the eyes of dying patients while a pathology resident, one can legitimately wonder whether his interest in dying bordered on unhealthy obsession.
A legitimate question remains whether Kevorkian was a dedicated, though misguided, physician, or a serial killer taking refuge under the mantel of the profession. If a serial killer, he was perhaps the most prolific in the history of the world.
Second, Kevorkian didn’t merely champion the rights of dying patients to refuse treatment, he argued for physician-assisted suicide. In so doing, he suggested that the medical profession should abandon its sole focus on combating illness and extending life and make physicians available to also actively end life. He did not account for the fact that incorporating that dichotomy of motivations within a healing profession could easily diminish the zealousness and purity of spirit with which doctors would fight to prolong life in the elderly and terminally ill, even if no assisted suicide were requested.
Kevorkian also neglected the fact that opening the door to physician-assisted suicide would inevitably lead to a slippery slope in which forces in society would argue about what really constituted a good and worthwhile life, and when it was better to embrace death.
As a medical reporter years ago, I visited Amsterdam, where physician-assisted suicide was legal. More than one doctor told me that they would certainly consider assisting in the suicide of an amputee if that person felt life was unbearable without four limbs. “If you were a swimmer and you loved swimming, and now your right arm is gone, and you no longer want to live if you can’t swim, I am your man,” one doctor told me over dinner.
Why would we not focus our efforts on conquering chronic pain and curing illness and battling to find reserves of self-esteem even in human beings who assert they have no will to live? Why would we not resolutely and universally help them to see that the next minute or hour or day could be one in which they shared a thought that changed a person’s life, or showed courage in the face of adversity that served as an example that would last that person’s life entire.
Can you imagine a psychiatrist advising a patient that her desire to commit suicide was rational and that he would offer her a referral to a physician to administer her a lethal injection? That is the world Jack Kevorkian wanted to see.
If Jack Kevorkian (and notice that I do not in this article use “Dr.” in front of his name, ever) did not intuit that the slippery slope would certainly manifest itself in America (were assisted suicide widely available) then he was either naïve or bloodthirsty. We really can’t know which. What we do know is that he was willing to kill, again and again, even though it was against the law.
Kevorkian also neglected the fact that once assisted suicide law were legislated, there would certainly be those who would seek to expand it beyond the defined parameters of those who were terminally ill (as evidenced by the Amsterdam experience). How about those with unbearable migraine headaches? How about those who are blind? How about those sentenced to penal institutions for 30 years or longer? How about those with mental retardation who are competent to make decisions, but wish not to live with their disabilities? How about the poor?
Kevorkian didn’t envision the millions of misguided families who would be encouraged to wonder, tragically, why a loved one wasn’t electing what would be widely available physician-assisted suicide? Why was their elderly father spending so much money on assisted living or nursing care or medical care when he could decide so easily to die painlessly—and with the blessing of the medical establishment and the government?
Once a society begins to legislate death, human life becomes less valuable. It is like arithmetic. It just happens. It is inevitable.
The German government’s embrace of euthanasia before the Holocaust was no accident.
Kevorkian seemingly didn’t understand that anyone in America or anywhere else can take his or her life painlessly if that person is utterly determined to do so. Sadly, information is available in books and on the Internet about how to bring about one’s own demise with certainty. No one really needed Kevorkian’s help to leave the earth before God took that person.
In sum, Kevorkian’s passing is the passing of a singular threat to our civilized way of thinking and our embrace of the value of human life.
Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team. Dr. Ablow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.