Jack Kevorkian, R.I.P.

Do you remember the famous line from Emily Dickinson: “Because I could not stop for death / He kindly stopped for me…”? I thought about that line last week upon hearing last week that Dr. Jack Kevorkian died at age 83. Of natural causes, it should be added.

Kevorkian, of course, was infamous for his advocacy for physician-assisted suicide. He himself was a pathologist (his critics might say he was pathological), so he knew something about death as a doctor. He spent eight years in prison for acting on his conviction that it’s the duty of doctors to alleviate the suffering of the terminally ill by helping them die.

Whether you agree with Kevorkian or not — and I don’t — you could argue that he at least brought the issue of end-of-life suffering to the public attention. The problem is that he actually won people over to his point of view. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he tapped into a latent stream of thought in society that believes suffering is to be avoided at all costs, even if it means giving your doctor license to kill you. The interesting thing is that very, very few people took advantage of this in the places where it actually became legal.

You can read a CNN story about Kevorkian’s demise and reactions to it here.

In contrast to Kevorkian’s philosophy, there is the view of my former teacher at Duke Divinity School, Stanley Hauerwas. I just saw a Q&A with Stan today on the United Methodist Reporter site, in which he talks about a “good death” also, but of a very different kind than what Kevorkian advocated.

In his characteristically provocative way, Stan says our society’s ideas about death have gone far astray: “In America death has unfortunately become associated with: You’re dead when your doctor can no longer do anything for you. I want to think that our deaths can be claimed as part of a community of friends that are able to be present to us as we die. That means that you don’t have to do everything necessary to keep your body alive.”

Stan makes the fascinating point that we have not only asked too much of physicians, we have given them too much power and authority. When he asks people how they want to die, he says, they say: “They want to die painlessly, in their sleep, and quickly because when they die they don’t want to have to know they’re dying. So now they ask physicians to keep them alive to the point that when they die they don’t have to know they’re dying—and then they blame physicians for keeping them alive to no point.”

So the responsibility then becomes ours to know how to be sick and to know how to die well. To accept our mortality gracefully, not to hasten it but not to avoid it. That’s where Kevorkian and his supporters missed the point. When there is faith and community, suffering and death decrease in importance. And Dr. Kevorkian’s services are not needed.

At least he didn’t use them on himself. So, rest in peace, Dr. K. And may your philosophy rest in peace with you.



Filed under Euthanasia

3 responses to “Jack Kevorkian, R.I.P.

  1. Great thoughts…great post…glad you’re still writing.

  2. Committed Christians through the centuries have struggled with Paul’s tension: “for to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” How do we balance our dual loves for abundant and purposeful life now and the hope of eternal life hereafter? And, as you point out so well, when does our love of life become an idolatry in even more subtle ways than overtly fearing and seeking to avoid death?

  3. Pingback: Late Faith Links: Were Adam and Eve Real, Welcome to New Blogger Cary McMullen, & More Hell Debate | Polk Perspectives

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s