How About a Debate, Dr. Kevorkian?

This past week, police interrupted a Jack Kevorkian suicide consultation, Kevorkian the next day assisted in his 43rd suicide and the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a Michigan Supreme Court ruling that makes the practice a common law crime. Dr. Kevorkian's attorney, Geoffrey Fieger, now complains that the voice of assisted suicide's leading expert won't be heard in another case on the subject before the US Supreme Court. I am more than willing to give him an opportunity to be heard.

I am challenging Jack Kevorkian to a formal debate on assisted suicide. I'd like this debate to go beyond the legality or illegality of his practice, and even beyond the facts of the many cases of suicide in which he has assisted. These are the areas most critics concentrate on, whereas he and I both know that real issue here is the morality or immorality of the “right-to-die” position itself, and the ethical implications of assisting people in exercising this supposed right.

So long as the debate centers on the medical details of his patients--how sick they were, how much pain they were in, and how close to death they were--juries are not likely to convict him. People have proven too “sympathetic” to the person's wish to die, which is a terrible commentary on our times. But the fact is that the law and courts alone aren't sufficient to deal with the issue. The question of whether there is a “right-to-die” stands or falls on intellectual argument. It's time that argument get a public hearing.

As a Catholic priest, I would like the opportunity to defend the traditional view of human dignity, based on reason and civil discourse. Dr. Kevorkian also believes his position to be morally correct, and he should be given the chance to defend it.

I propose the debate to involve myself and a colleague of my choosing, against Dr. Kevorkian and perhaps his lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger. We can call it “Life, Death, and Choice.”

Consider the stakes. In September, Bloomfield Township authorities confiscated a tape which shows Dr. Kevorkian telling a multiple sclerosis patient how to kill herself and leave the impression that the death was due to natural causes. The tape was made on the very day of the woman's death. A week after her death, Dr. Kevorkian told the press that he no longer felt obligated to report his role in any suicide. “This is true death with dignity,” he said. “No police or media or medical examiners.”

As the reigning champion in the courtroom arena, Dr. Kevorkian has become all the more confident, and for good reason. The gruesome medical details of each of his disheartened patients focuses the attention of each juror on Dr. Kevorkian's relieving pain. Yet the real question at stake is much deeper. It addresses essential questions of human rights: whether it is moral or immoral for a person to be “helped” to die.

Consider the case of Judith Curren, the 42-year-old mother of two young children whom Dr. Kevorkian claimed was fatally ill with chronic fatigue syndrome. She'd had a case history of psychiatric troubles, was overweight and depressed. Three weeks after she had accused her husband of abusing her, she committed suicide with Dr. Kevorkian's assistance.

The public discussion surrounding this case has centered on whether she was really abused, and whether her condition was indeed fatal. But as I understand Dr. Kevorkian's real views, it doesn't matter whether she was sick or abused or not. He has never said that only the terminally ill should die. As he said after the Curren suicide, it is a question of “quality of life,” a criterion that is radically subjective to the individual. If the person wants to die, the good doctor is glad to help.

Kevorkian stresses that he always tries to talk people out of going through with the suicide, and that he will only take patients whose families support the decision to die. He requires them to fill out a form in which they are asked whether there are any troubles in the family or disagreement over finances. Again, none of this contradicts his view that it is ultimately up to the individual, regardless of objective medical facts.

Is assisted suicide a “war against suffering” as Dr. Kevorkian describes it, with the definition of suffering entirely up to the individual contracting for his service? Or is this really an assault on the very notion of life itself, as sanctified and worthy of defense no matter what? It is on this moral question that the debate ultimately rests.

I look forward to Dr. Kevorkian's answer to my challenge. If he is confident of the morality of his position, he should be glad to accept. He can look at this as an opportunity to educate the public about his ethical theories—especially since the US Supreme Court won't allow him and Fieger to participate in arguments in an upcoming case debating the constitutionality of assisted suicide.

If Kevorkian does not accept, he implies that he doesn't have enough confidence in his own position to let it withstand careful scrutiny. So, Dr. Kevorkian, which will it be? I'm ready. Are you?