Assisted suicide exploded into the news again two months ago after Brittany Maynard, dying of brain cancer, announced she would take a lethal prescription as permitted under Oregon law. Maynard became an international celebrity, lauded as “courageous” in a cover story in People and featured in the world’s top media outlets.
The last time the media swarmed so feverishly in favor of assisted suicide was when they touted Jack Kevorkian’s defiant assisted suicide campaign in the 1990s. As they later would with Maynard, the media substituted intense emotionalism for reporting and analysis, focusing almost exclusively on the suffering of those who wanted to die rather than the radical societal changes Kevorkian hoped his death campaign would bring about.
Kevorkian is dead, but the policies he advocated are becoming reality—one bit here, another bit there—throughout much of the West. For example, Kevorkian insisted that access to assisted suicide should not be restricted to the terminally ill. He put his poison where his mouth was, too: About 70 percent of those who flew to Michigan to end their lives with Kevorkian’s assistance weren’t terminally ill. Five weren’t even sick, according to their autopsies, including his second known assisted suicide—Marjorie Wantz—a mentally ill woman who complained of chronic pain.
As advocated by Kevorkian, euthanasia or assisted suicide laws and pending legislative proposals outside of the United States do not limit doctor-facilitated death to the terminally ill. Euthanasia is legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Quebec, none of which limit it to terminal illness. Ditto Switzerland, where suicide clinics dispatch the dying and non-dying alike. The same goes for Scotland’s pending legislation to legalize assisted suicide.
It is true that the three states that have formally legalized assisted suicide—Oregon, Washington, and Vermont—restrict it to the terminally ill. But that seems more a political expedient than a principled approach. Indeed, there have been several legalization proposals here that would have been far more expansive. For example, New Hampshire’s 2014 bill, HB 1325, claimed to limit legalized assisted suicide to the dying, but used Jonathan Gruber-type obfuscation to hide its true intent in the definition of terminal illness:
“Terminal condition” means an incurable and irreversible condition, for the end stage for which there is no known treatment which will alter its course to death, and which, in the opinion of the attending physician and consulting physician competent in that disease category, will result in premature death. [emphasis added]
That definition is broad enough to drive a hearse through, potentially encompassing conditions such as progressive multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, and asymptomatic HIV infection. Indeed, as the disability rights activist Stephen Drake of Not Dead Yet wrote blasting the bill, “My [disabled] partner would fit that definition. Many people I work with also fit the definition. None of them are dying.”
Kevorkian also believed that assisted suicide was a human right that should be allowed to anyone wanting to die. Thus, in his 1991 book, Prescription Medicide: The Goodness of a Planned Death, Kevorkian wrote in favor of what he called “optional assisted suicide”:
This is for individuals, sometimes in good physical and mental health, who choose to be killed. . . . The compelling factors may be physical (the end stage of incurable disease, crippling deformity, or severe trauma), mental (intense anxiety or psychic torture inflicted by self or others) or doxastic (religious or philosophical tenets or inflexible personal convictions).
“Optional” assisted suicides and euthanasia killings take place legally now. In the Netherlands, psychiatrists euthanize about 50 mentally ill patients a year, and doctors euthanize their elderly patients because they are “tired of life.” The KNMG—the Dutch Medical Association—wrote an ethics opinion arguing that “suffering” justifying euthanasia in the elderly could include money woes and loneliness.
In Belgium, a transsexual was euthanized legally because he was distraught by a botched sex change surgery. A psychiatric patient, taken advantage of sexually by her psychiatrist, was euthanized by his replacement because she was so distressed over the victimization. Elderly couples who don’t want to be widowed have received joint euthanasia killings—to public applause.
Switzerland has embraced Kevorkianism. People fly from around the world to patronize suicide clinics there. In addition to assisting the terminally ill and disabled to die, Swiss clinics have, as in Belgium, engaged in joint assisted suicides of elderly couples and helped people to die who were suffering existential crises. Just two examples: This year a healthy elderly Italian woman made a one-way trip to Switzerland because she was distraught over her lost looks, soon followed by an elderly British woman who believed her death would help the environment.
The list of Kevorkian proposals being implemented or proposed as a means of “death with dignity” could go on and on:
- Kevorkian wrote in the journal Medicine and Law (1986) that laymen should be permitted to assist suicides. Today, Scotland’s pending assisted suicide legislation proposes the creation of a new profession—the “licensed suicide facilitator”—who would be permitted to assist suicides of those found medically eligible by a doctor.
- Kevorkian argued that euthanasia should be available to babies and children. In the Netherlands, terminally ill and seriously disabled infants are euthanized under what is known as the Groningen Protocol, while Belgium recently legalized assisted suicide for children with no age restrictions.
- Kevorkian believed that the bodies of those being euthanized should be used for society’s benefit. He even removed the kidneys of ex-policeman Joseph Tushkowski—a quadriplegic he assisted in suicide—offering them at a press conference, “First come, first served.” Belgium now couples euthanasia with organ harvesting. Doctors there have even held seminars urging that patients with neuromuscular disabilities should be considered prime candidates because they have “good organs.” The Netherlands is now drawing up regulations to do likewise.
- Kevorkian proposed setting up regional death centers to make the “service” more accessible. In the Netherlands, doctors make euthanasia house calls while mobile euthanasia clinics travel to nursing homes and elsewhere, to facilitate suicides in cases where personal doctors refuse euthanasia requests.
- Kevorkian believed that euthanasia and assisted suicide should be between a patient and doctor, with no state “guidelines.” Vermont’s new assisted suicide law currently has guidelines requiring doctors to report their assisted deaths (similar to the law in Oregon). But the guidelines sunset in three years, after which assisted suicide will be essentially unregulated in that state.
Kevorkian was convinced that he was leading us into the future. Some were shocked by his ideas. Many smirked, blithely assuming it could never happen. But it has happened and is happening. Listen carefully and you may hear Kevorkian, whispering from the Great Beyond: “I told you so.”