RIP, Doctor Death
By Deirdre A. McQuade
June 13, 2011
Dr. Jack Kevorkian died on June 3 at age 83 from kidney-related problems. May God have mercy on him. The most infamous advocate for physician-assisted suicide, he earned the nickname "Doctor Death" in the 1990's by furnishing lethal drugs to 130 patients so they could kill themselves. He served eight years of his 10-25 year prison sentence for second-degree murder. Dr. Kevorkian not only broke the law many times over, he violated the first principles animating the noble practice of medicine, and broke the trust on which the doctor-patient relationship is founded.
For millennia, doctors have taken the Hippocratic Oath pledging to abide by certain ethical principles, the most basic of which is to do no harm. The oath then says: "I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan." The American Medical Association holds that "physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician's role as healer." Dr. Kevorkian and others like him have violated that role. They abused their profession by prescribing death, instead of treating illness or (when cure is not possible) giving life-affirming palliative care to alleviate pain.
Doctors who assist suicides also violate the trust on which the doctor-patient relationship is founded. A doctor in Oregon where assisted suicide is legal, Dr. Charles J. Bentz, urged Hawaii not to follow Oregon's lead in a powerful op-ed to the Hawaii Reporter in 2009. A melanoma patient under his primary care became depressed during treatment and expressed the desire for assisted suicide to a cancer specialist. When approached for the second opinion needed by law for the lethal overdose of barbiturates, Dr. Bentz refused, saying his patient would be better served by addressing his underlying mental health issues. He writes, "Unfortunately, my concerns were ignored, and approximately two weeks later my patient was dead from an overdose prescribed by this doctor. His death certificate, filled out by this doctor, listed the cause of death as melanoma." He then asks: "If assisted suicide is made legal in Hawaii, will you be able to trust your doctors, insurers and HMOs to give you and your family members the best care? I referred my patient to specialty care, to a doctor I trusted, and the outcome turned out to be fatal."
Dr. Kevorkian's crimes sparked nationwide controversy. Many were shocked and scandalized by his actions, but others started to believe in the false mercy he offered. Today, physician-assisted suicide is legal in Oregon and Washington; and the highest court in the State of Montana has opened the door to legal confusion on the issue by saying that assisted suicide may sometimes not be against public policy. Led by the advocacy group "Compassion and Choices" (formerly known by the far more foreboding title "Hemlock Society"), the assisted suicide movement is now working hard to legitimize this offense against vulnerable patients in other states.
At press time for this column, the U.S. Catholic bishops were poised to vote on a policy statement against physician-assisted suicide at their meeting in Seattle, where the practice has been legal since 2008. Entitled "To Live Each Day with Dignity," the statement is expected to reaffirm the fundamental dignity of all persons; call for compassionate care of the sick, elderly and disabled; and make moral and policy arguments against seeing assisted suicide as a "compassionate choice" for seriously ill patients. Should they approve the document, it will be available at www.usccb.org/toliveeachday along with additional resources such as fact sheets, educational articles, and prayers.
Despite his advocacy for assisted suicide, Dr. Kevorkian himself died naturally. Let us pray for all patients who may be tempted to commit suicide, and for the compassionate courage to stand with them—not abandon them—when they need our support the most.
Deirdre A. McQuade is Assistant Director for Policy & Communications at the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. For more information on the bishops' statement on assisted suicide, go to www.usccb.org/toliveeachday.