Dr. Death has died. But the battle over physician-assisted suicide lives on.
Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a.k.a., “Dr. Death,” died earlier this month in a hospital in Royal Oaks, Michigan. He was eighty-three.
The location of his death is worth noting, because while he died in a hospital, many of the 130 people he helped kill themselves took their lives in or near his VW bus.
He was the subject of HBO film starring Al Pacino called You Don’t Know Jack which, as the title suggests, portrayed him as a misunderstood figure. In his Emmy-Award acceptance speech, Pacino called Kevorkian “brilliant and interesting and unique.”
Like the HBO biopic, the New York Times obituary went to great lengths to portray Kevorkian in a positive light. In an almost comical attempt at “balance,” the Times said that both his critics and supporters generally agreed” that his “advocacy of assisted suicide helped spur the growth of hospice care in the United States.”
That’s like saying that John Dillinger helped spur the growth of bank security. As Times columnist Ross Douthat noted in his excellent column, one study found that 60 percent of Kevorkian’s “patients” weren’t terminally ill. In fact, autopsies revealed that some of them weren’t sick at all!
So what was Dr. Death up to? Ultimately, “physician-assisted suicide” isn’t about compassionate care of the sick and dying, it’s about personal autonomy. As Douthat wrote, the case for it “depends much more on our respect for people’s own desire to die than on our sympathy for their devastating medical conditions.”
Ludwig Minelli, who founded Dignitas, a Swiss organization that facilitates suicides, calls the ability to determine the time and manner of one’s death “a marvelous possibility given to a human being” -- a “possibility” that shouldn’t be confined to the terminally ill. Thus, one study found that 21 percent of the approximately 1,000 people Dignitas has helped commit suicide were not terminally ill.
As a devout Christian, Douthat takes solace in the fact that fourteen years ago, in Compassion in Dying v. Glucksberg, the Supreme Court rejected the idea of a constitutional “right to die.”
I’m not so consoled. The Court didn’t decide the case on its merits, only that people had not yet settled the question in democratic debate. But any time it wants to the Court can raise the question again and base their decision on Justice Kennedy’s infamous ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey: “At the heart of liberty,” Kennedy wrote, “is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
That passage is, as once critic put it, a “thing of almost infinite plasticity” that could justify almost anything. And the Court often does change its mind. When Casey was decided in 1992, for example, no one thought Kennedy’s passage would create a constitutional right to sodomy, but it did. Seventeen years after ruling there was no such right, the court reversed itself in Lawrence v. Texas.
People who think that it can’t happen with physician-assisted suicide, especially as public opinion shifts on the issue, not only don’t know Jack, they don’t know what the courts are capable of.
We who believe in the sanctity of human life from conception through natural death must speak out in every public forum. Otherwise we will have thrust upon us the constitutional right to die.
Jack Kevorkian's Legacy Lives on After Death
Letters to the Editor | The Seattle Times | June 17, 2011