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Kevorkian is gone, but not the moral imperative in euthanasia

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture
Jack Kevorkian

Dr. Jack Kevorkian's death today is certain to rekindle, at least fleetingly, the debate about the topic of euthanasia. Kevorkian, nicknamed “Dr. Death” in the media, gained notoriety in the eighties and nineties for inventing a portable euthanasia kit and marketing his services as an assisted-suicide doctor for those who wished to end their life voluntarily, usually in cases of terminal illnesses. He was indicted and acquitted in a number of suicide-assisted cases before being convicted and sentenced for the television-aired killing of Thomas Youk, a man suffering from the incurable disease ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).

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Kevorkian’s controversial assisted-suicide practice was the culmination of a seemingly lifelong obsession with death, and as far back as the 1960’s he was publishing peer-reviewed articles detailing the process of transfusing the blood of cadavers into living patients. He was a passionate advocate of voluntary euthanasia and argued his position on ethical grounds.

Which brings us quickly to the heart of the matter. The debate about euthanasia is first and foremost a moral debate, which is why it provokes such passions on both sides of the issue. Morality and ethics are inextricably bound up with questions of ultimate meaning, whether we profess a particular creed or disavow one. Even in our politically-correct discourse eschewing hierarchical values, the question of euthanasia confronts us with the necessity of grappling with absolutes: what is the correct action in relation to life, such as it may be?

The fact that euthanasia was bound up with various eugenics projects in the early part of the 20th century, both in Germany and the United States, betrays the dark heart of the human preoccupation with destruction. Who now would publicly endorse an efficient program of killing infants and young children under the age of 3 due to an arbitrary set of criteria such as physical deformity, developmental disability or behavioral problem? The Nazis enacted such policies under various public and secret programs, such as the infamous Action T4. While we may now claim to be civilized in our debate about the advisability of euthanasia under certain exceptional circumstances, that civility bears a closer examination.

Some of the pros given for a policy of voluntary euthanasia (VE) include:

· Choice: Proponents of VE emphasize that choice is a fundamental principle for liberal democracies and free market systems.

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· Quality of Life: The pain and suffering a person feels during a disease, even with pain relievers, can be incomprehensible to a person who has not gone through it. Even without considering the physical pain, it is often difficult for patients to overcome the emotional pain of losing their independence.

· Economic costs and human resources: Today in many countries there is a shortage of hospital space. The energy of doctors and hospital beds could be used for people whose lives could be saved instead of continuing the life of those who want to die which increases the general quality of care and shortens hospital waiting lists. It is a burden to keep people alive past the point they can contribute to society, especially if the resources used could be spent on a curable ailment.

Of the three, the economic question flies perhaps with the greatest force in the face of the inherent dignity of the human person. The argument is essentially utilitarian and bypasses the question of the inherent value of each individual human being. The relative shortage of hospital beds in times of peace is in itself a moral failure of the society which provides them. If we are reduced to a system of triage where there is no apparent battlefield, then this fact itself bears a closer scrutiny. Is there an invisible economic and class battle amiss? But that is an altogether separate subject.

The questions of choice and quality of life bring us closer to the question of ultimates and absolutes. Is choice, as applied to the election or termination of life, a fundamental principle in a liberal democracy? We come up against a question which demands a hierarchical valuation. To equate my right to choose what type of dress to buy (in a free market system) with a right to terminate life, even my own, is clearly incommensurate. The two values are not only incompatible, they are incomparable. It is not advisable, nor should it be possible, to equate political rights, which are contingent, with moral values, which are immutable. The question which confronts me in the debate about euthanasia is not one of choice, but of correct action. I do not want to miss the mark (hamartia, the more elegant Greek term for sin) rather than choose.

The question of the quality of life is, perhaps, the more intimate aspect of the problem of correct action in the face of unspeakable suffering. No one can presume to speak for the experience of suffering of another person. The suffering that a person endures is intimately and uniquely his, and the moral challenge and burden that it presents him is his alone. No other suffering human being should be endowed with the power to dispense either the shortening or the prolongation of another’s suffering.

Yes, I did say no suffering human being should have the power to dispense another’s suffering; this was intentional, for there is no living human being on earth who does not suffer. That included Dr. Jack Kevorkian when he was alive. The very fact of his lifelong and quite morbid preoccupation with death betrayed his own suffering, displaced on to concrete images of disintegration and decay. As a facilitator of assisted suicide, he was intimately present with, and the active agent of, the departure of life. Most people suffer profound trauma in witnessing another human being’s death in such close proximity. The fact that Dr. Kevorkian was invigorated by such experiences points to the heart of darkness we should all be on guard against.

Image source: Wikipedia

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