Kevorkian's Moral Lapse in Right to Die

Part of Jack Kevorkian's pitch for his gruesome trade is that he wants society to recognize a right to die and a right for professional physicians to make their living helping others die. But rather than take his intellectual and moral case before the public, he has chosen a shorter route. He preys upon scores of psychologically weakened people by encouraging them to end their lives and then dumps their dead bodies at the local hospital.

To me, this practice represents a grave threat to civilization itself--not to mention the souls of the people involved in the trade. That's why, on Oct. 20, I challenged him to take a breather and discuss with me and the public the morality of his trade. He would make his case for it; I would make mine against it. Just once. That would move the debate over assisted suicide out of the courtroom and into the public square, where it can be discussed on moral grounds.

I received my answer in short order. The faxed response from Geoffrey Feiger reads: “'Keep your religious nose out of medical affairs,' says Dr. Kevorkian and me.” I take from this that Dr. Kevorkian thinks people of faith--and 95 percent of Americans describe themselves as such--have nothing to contribute to the subject of medical ethics. Dr. Kevorkian prefers serial death to serious engagement of ideas. Frankly, I wasn't surprised that he turned me down. Perhaps he felt such a debate is unnecessary, since the right to die movement is making great gains without vigorous public debate. Two federal courts, in San Francisco and New York, declared unconstitutional state laws that banned assisted suicide. The Supreme Court will review these decisions, and court watchers predict that it will rule some forms of assisted suicide as legal.

Approval of assisted suicide among the general public and among doctors is climbing. An April Gallup Poll indicated that three in four Americans believe doctors should be allowed to end the lives of terminally ill patients by painless means, if both patient and family request it. In 1973, only 53 percent agreed with the statement.

Nonetheless, Fieger's response to my debate challenge is interesting. It is tantamount to dismissing the relevance of moral reasoning in a debate over life and death. Our society, which accepts the view that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, must now banish any view that acknowledges transcendent norms from public discourse.

In the Kevorkian view, death should be a fairly simple market exchange. All that is needed in order to make it right to kill someone is the victim's consent. The condition of death need only be agreed upon between the “patient” and the service provider. Such a market exchange gives new meaning to the phrase “making a killing” and renders morality irrelevant.

Make no mistake: This debate is not really about people with terminal diseases. Dr. Kevorkian has written that suicide assistance should be available to “the so-called mentally ill whose life circumstances are subjectively intolerable.” This is a rejection of the view that human life has inherent dignity unaffected by a person's own self-perception or his utility to society.

Can people ethically decide when and how they will die? A yes answer runs counter to the civilized view of man. Since individual persons do not create themselves, they are not the autonomous owners of themselves and therefore cannot morally be the instrument of their own self-destruction.

Life is its own justification; that is why life must be maintained by any ordinary means. While society cannot prevent suicide, it can prevent malicious sociopaths from leading vulnerable people to high buildings and encouraging them to jump. Otherwise, even the prospect of terminal disease will be sufficient reason to help open the door to death.

What happens, then, when the person whose life is in question is incompetent or incapable of making his or her preference known? We will rely on the consent of his caretakers who can make a “rational” decision for the person, as Charles Rice of the Notre Dame Law School warns. “And if such a patient or an infirm octogenarian declines to choose death when such is 'rational' choice,” asks Dr. Rice, “would not that irrationality indicate his incompetence so as to allow others to make that 'rational' choice for him?”

It is already taking place in the Western world. In 1990, 2,300 people were euthanized by doctors in the Netherlands. One thousand were killed without their consent, including 140 cases involving a fully competent person who was never given a choice, according to the Family Research Council. This is a frightening trend, especially since the killers need not be private doctors, but also can be agents of the state.

The anti-ethics of the “right to die” represent an attack on the sanctity of human life. Those who advocate it are caught in a performative contradiction. A doctor cannot defend the right to choose and, at the same time, make a living by preventing people from ever choosing again.