Doctor Death Is Dead

Doctor Jack Kevorkian is dead, apparently of pulmonary thrombosis, after spending the last few weeks in a Michigan hospital.  He had long suffered from hepatitis C, to the point that his lawyer told a parole board in 2006 that he had “less than a year to live.”  He was 83 years old.

Everyone has their own opinions about Kevorkian and his “death with dignity” assisted suicide crusade.  Al Pacino, who played Kevorkian last year in the HBO movie You Don’t Know Jack, described him as “brilliant and interesting and unique.”

He was also a lunatic.  In fairness, it should be noted that lunacy and brilliance are not necessarily mutually exclusive. 

Kevorkian famously flummoxed CNN’s Sanjay Gupta in an interview where he jumped in and started babbling about having “no regrets” except for being born, which he described as “the single worst moment of my life,” before Gupta could say a word.  A few years before that, he was moping around in jail and saying he was still cool with killing a hundred people, but somewhat regretted breaking the law to do it.  It’s encouraging to hear evidence that correctional facilities might actually correct someone, from time to time.

His lawlessness is an important and troubling part of the Doctor Death saga.  We are a nation of laws, and those laws are not meant to be tossed aside by anyone who declares himself a brilliant visionary.  It would be one thing if Kevorkian was a tireless advocate of assisted suicide who exercised his free speech rights to persuade us that his cause was just.  That’s not what he did.  He killed people in defiance of the law.  The insinuation that society was somehow crude or benighted for tossing him behind bars is insulting and dangerous.  We have far too many laws that somehow don’t apply to our “great” men and women.

Kevorkian’s madness is a cautionary tale, for both individuals and societies, about the danger of courting Death as a lover.  It’s not exactly surprising that someone fascinated by death would go off the deep end.  It’s a lesson embedded deep in the rich heritage of our history and literature, and yet each new generation must learn it again, finding a new way to tell itself the same grim story.

Kevorkian billed himself as a pioneer in a new medical field, “patholysis,” which he described as the end of pain and suffering.  However, some of the people he killed were not dying, and others had a debatable level of pain.  In his CNN interview, he boasted to Sanjay Gupta that he had “three former CEOs of companies – perfectly healthy – who called me up and told me they wish to die.” 

“What difference does it make if someone is terminal?” he added.  “We are all terminal.”  That’s part of the problem, when a society falls in love with Death.  It is an all-consuming passion, for she is quietly seductive, while the beauty of Life is sometimes hard to see because of her stern disposition.

Gupta responded to Kevorkian’s tale of the morbid CEOs by realizing the suicide doctor saw his trade as a kind of extreme libertarianism – “upholding the ability for people to do whatever they wanted to do, without interference from doctors, the states, or the federal government.”

Let me answer the career of Dr. Jack Kevorkian with the kind of blunt talk he favored: if you really want to kill yourself, no compulsive force of the state or federal government can stop you.  This is not a libertarian issue.  It is a question of what we license doctors to do, and how we view their profession.  Are they tireless opponents of Death, or is their purpose to negotiate terms of surrender with her?

There’s a profound difference between switching off the life-support machines, and switching on the suicide machine.  No slope is more slippery than the cool marble slide that leads into the grave.  Dying people in agony go down the slide first, but depressed, healthy CEOs are not far behind them.  Inconvenient children are already hurtling down, tossed onto the slide before they’re old enough to cry.  The inconvenient elderly will be shoved on next.  Everyone is welcome.  There are no minimum height or age requirements for this ride.

“The single worst moment of my life was the moment I was born,” proclaimed Jack Kevorkian.  As if the inevitability of death negated the importance of birth!  It’s true that in the end, we are all dead.  Only the mad, and the dangerously immature, believe the most important part of the human story is the end.