The Common Good
November-December 1996

Death Becomes Him

by Julie Polter | November-December 1996

Kevorkian's caricature of mercy

For all the nihilistic posturing in our culture, not many of us really want to ponder the reality of death, the nuts and bolts of how and why and when. Least of all do we want to think about the slow ways we or those we love may die, the journeys down long twisting tunnels of terminal illness or disability or chronic pain.

These paths surely can be marked with the noblest human moments of the struggle with life and death. But they are also inevitably filled with the mundane ambiguity of suffering-monotony spiked with agony; a shifting, confusing blend of hope, despair, perseverance, and surrender.

So maybe some breathe a sigh of relief when Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the retired, unlicensed Michigan pathologist who has assisted more than 40 people in committing suicide, brashly smashes open the vacuum of cultural denial. With press conferences, videotapes, and general outrageousness, he shoves death stage center where you can't look away and he claims that it's all much more simple than doctors, lawyers, ethicists, or theologians would have you think.

Dr. Jack explains it all: Suffering is wrong and the dignified choice is to end it. An I.V. drip in a rusty van or hotel room is nothing more and nothing less than a courageous stand for freedom and personal autonomy. The law has nothing to do with it. Societal standards have nothing to do with it. The blessings and shadows of a dying person's relationships with family and friends have nothing to do with it. Spirituality or organized religion certainly have nothing to do with it.

Whether you applaud Kevorkian or are repulsed by him, you can perhaps recognize the release and relief many would find in seeing things from his perspective. On Kevorkian's terms, death is purely an individual matter, only a concern if you're the one choosing a physician's assistance in speeding up the process. According to The Washington Post, about 75 percent of the public supports the idea of physician-assisted suicide.

But the stark clarity of Kevorkian's "mercy and individual rights" road show evaporates when you look at the full record of who he has reported assisting in committing suicide since 1990. A large majority have been women; several have had the kind of diseases usually associated with questions of euthanasia-terminal cancer or severely debilitating conditions like Lou Gehrig's disease, accompanied by presumably untreatable pain. But Kevorkian has been steadily pushing the limit on what constitutes "terminal" or "untreatable."

His "clients" include Rebecca Badger, apparently severely disabled by what had been diagnosed as multiple sclerosis; an autopsy found no physical evidence of the disease. Her history included evidence of depression, chemical abuse, and alcoholism. She had refused antidepressants and was reportedly unhappy with a previous psychological consultation.

KEVORKIAN CONCEDES that Judith Curren, a 42-year-old nurse and mother of two young children, was not terminally ill; rather she didn't feel she could continue bearing the pain and exhaustion of chronic fatigue syndrome. Her psychiatrist husband was at her side with Kevorkian when she committed suicide.

That same husband had been twice accused of assaulting her, with the police paying a visit to their home just three weeks before her death to arrest him on a charge of domestic assault and battery. As the Washington Post editorial page asked, "Is it in any way merciful, compassionate, or 'healing' (a favorite word of Kevorkian fans) to assist in the suicide of a middle-aged woman who is tired and depressed and married to a man whom she recently accused of attacking her and who then delivers her to Dr. Kevorkian?"

Dying, like most things that matter, is a morally complex reality. Take a walk through a cancer ward or hospice or intensive care unit and it will be clear that almost any patient's existence is itself a dynamic interplay of body, emotion, and (yes) spirit, enmeshed in a medical establishment and medical technology and a web (or snarl) of personal relationships.

Kevorkian has caricatured the Christian perspective resisting euthanasia as nothing more than a foolish claim that the body is sacred, a claim academically or spiritually removed from the physical reality of severe illness and pain. But the truth is that if we bring the whole of our faith and ethical heritage forward, it pushes us into deep engagement with the full range of issues (biological, medical, legal, relational, political, ethical) that are at stake in questions of euthanasia.

A human being, made in the image of God, does have infinite value in our tradition. But if we see all life, all creation as flowing from God (and, eventually, back again), then we do not claim solely the worth of an individual life, but also the sanctity of an individual's connection to the rest of creation. Life is not just a heart beat and brain waves, but relationships and interdependence (both incarnate and transcendent) among people and the rest of the earth.

Engagement (both personal and at the policy level) with the complexity of these questions, and a pushing for such full engagement by our society, should be what people of faith are about. This role is all the more key as the Supreme Court hears two cases this January that could fundamentally change how the legal system deals with physician-assisted suicide. There is too much mystery inherent in death and life for us to claim any simple answers; there is too much sacred in life and death not to fight for accountability where the two intersect.

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