Dr. Kevorkian's Assault on the Weak and Elderly

by Rev. Sterling Durgy

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Dr. Jack Kevorkian has achieved a great deal of notoriety due to his efforts to promote physician-assisted suicide. Not only has he, to date, assisted some 130 people to commit suicide, he has, until recently, defeated attempts by law enforcement to stop him. Three juries have acquitted him of criminal charges and one jury was unable to arrive at a decision.

Although Dr. Kevorkian has just been convicted of second-degree murder and unlawfully administering a controlled substance, he continues to insist that his efforts are to relieve the pain and suffering of his patients -- and many people still seem to be sympathetic to his cause.

What seems to escape the notice of Kevorkian and his supporters is that the success of Kevorkian's efforts would expose an entire group of the weak and elderly to potential abuse. To begin with, it is easy to see how the "right to commit suicide due to terminal illness" could become a more general "right to suicide." Dr. Kevorkian would surely answer that professionals would review the situation and prevent people from committing suicide for trivial reasons. There is reason to question such a promise, however, in the light of recent accusations that not all of the people Kevorkian has helped to commit suicide have been terminally ill. We have even more reason to question this in the face of the abortion-mills and abortion-rights advocates, who will perform abortion for any reason right up to the time of birth -- indeed, even bringing about a "partial birth" so that they can justify taking the child's life as a "medical procedure involving a fetus rather than a child." Once money is involved, there are certain to be "professionals" who find ways to justify ignoring standards -- and claim that they are doing something "noble," that they are protecting the patient's "rights."

One of the most fundamental difficulties with this "right to die" position is that once a person has committed him or herself to suicide, others can force that person to continue, even if that person changes his or her mind. How does the patient stop half-way through the procedure if the patient wants to? A damaging dose of gas or drug would already have been administered. If a patient gave signed permission, that patient could then be killed against the patient's will, since the note would seem to document that the patient wanted to die, completely absolving the guilt (before a court) of the one who took the patient's life, with no indication that the patient had changed his or her mind.

Thus this situation is not made any better by Kevorkian's contention that he has the patient's "consent." True enough, consent may be willingly given in some cases. However, in many others, this also leaves the patient open to the coercion to obtain "consent." This coercion would likely be difficult to prove in a court of law. Even when such "consent" is willingly given, society has the right to question whether someone giving that "consent" has truly acted in his or her self-interest. Given that a strong desire to hang onto life is evident in mentally healthy individuals, an individual giving "consent" to be killed can be seen as acting under a diminished capacity to make decisions as a result of their illness. Such individuals should be defended by those who can more objectively look out for their welfare.

Further, the weak and elderly might be persuaded by family or acquaintances to participate in physician-assisted suicide out of a false sense of "duty," to take the burden of their care away from others. This would be even worse if society promoted the belief that it was "noble" to end one's life this way. This would place an additional pressure upon all sick and elderly individuals to end their lives for the sake of the healthy. In the past, there have been many instances where people murdered their parents to gain their inheritance. If physician-assisted suicide becomes acceptable, individuals with such detestable intentions would not be shamed or treated as criminals, but would have the blessing of society in pressuring and manipulating their relatives into an early demise. The weakest and most subjective of the patients would be the most likely to be victimized.

This becomes even more tragic in those cases where an individual desires to commit suicide because that person is already a victim of someone else's abuse. What worse path could we take than to urge those who have been oppressed to just "get out of our way?" Suppose, too, an individual decides to commit suicide based on a mistaken diagnosis. Suppose that if the patient were to live, a treatment would be found. People who are suffering are prone to be so wrapped up in their current condition that they are less likely to look ahead when there might be hope.

In addition, physician-assisted suicide provides a route for the corruption of medicine as a profession. The clear goal of medicine has been to preserve life whenever possible. Physician-assisted suicide forces physicians to decide whether to prolong or to terminate life -- introducing pressures and issues (like finances) that physicians have not had to cope with in this manner before. What happens, for instance, in cases where a patient's ability to pay is in doubt? Aren't we making termination of the patient's life an attractive way for the unscrupulous physician to end responsibility for the patient -- as well as a way for dishonest physcians to cover their mistakes? A physician who makes a mistake could "ethically" recommend suicide and, perhaps, cover up that mistake forever. Who decides whether this professional has acted competently and in the patient's best interests? Once the practice has become acceptable, incompetence and corruption in this matter would be exceedingly difficult to prove -- especially if the physician has documentation that seems to verify that the patient chose this of the patient's free will. After all, if the patient is dead, who is to say otherwise?

This is different from the difficult decision of whether and when to stop extraordinary means to save a patient's life. Because medical science now has the ability to sustain a virtual corpse for virtually any length of time, we are forced to decide when to terminate medical intervention. This is much different from the decision of whether to give treatment or medications that have the direct purpose of terminating the patient's life. One is the recognition that natural death is imminent or has already occurred, the other is actively taking a human life before natural death occurs. Dr. Kevorkian knows this. He hasn't been promoting "physician-assisted suffering reduction" but "physician-assisted suicide." The argument for "pain reduction" is a slender "fig leaf" indeed when he has been openly promoting suicide all along.

There is another option, one favored in the medical community at this point in time and one we hope will continue to be favored: The reduction of pain without the termination of the patient's life. We encourage the development of new methods and technologies to achieve this goal.

Physician-assisted suicide promises "freedom." Instead, it offers the prospect of dreaded new pressures and dangers to those who are already weak. It cages them in and sends them down a path they might otherwise reject. It takes away from them the certainty that the medical profession is operating in the patient's best interests. Life is precious. Life is personal. It is a gift from God, our Creator, who alone has the right to choose when our lives should end. Paganism respects only the powerful, the successful, the strong. The individual becomes of no importance. Christianity, like Judaism, has a special interest in protecting the weak and the oppressed. Every individual is important because every person is important to God, the only true Creator and Savior.

Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke? Isaiah 58:6
He who oppresses the poor reproaches his Maker, but he who is gracious to the needy honors Him. Proverbs 14:31
Thus says the Lord, "Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor, also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place."Jeremiah 22:3

We urge Christians, and the medical community, to continue to reject the misguided efforts of those who support the Dr. Kevorkians of this world and their flawed conception of compassion.

Updated March 27, 1999.

Copyright 1996, 1999 Sterling M. Durgy. All Rights Reserved.

The American Night Watch is a trademark of the Christian ministry of Sterling M. Durgy.

Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968,1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

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This page was last updated October 22, 1999.