With the death of Dr. Kevorkian a few days ago, it’s worth taking a moment to assess the health of right-to-die movement he fostered.
This op-ed from the New York Times suggests that the right to die might be wheezing toward its end, at least in America. The citizens of Washington State and Oregon raced each other to the finish with legalizing physician-assisted suicide, but other states have been slow to follow. Could it be that the death of Dr. Kevorkian might take the movement off life support?
The Times‘ piece is itself a heartening sign, in that it pulls no punches about the squishy, manipulative language often used to justify euthanasia. The author makes a fairly strong secular argument for the idea that assisting suicide is an intrinsically evil act:
… The moral case for assisted suicide depends much more on our respect for people’s own desire to die than on our sympathy for their devastating medical conditions. If participating in a suicide is legally and ethically acceptable, in other words, it can’t just be because cancer is brutal and dementia is dehumanizing. It can only be because there’s a right to suicide.
And once we allow that such a right exists, the arguments for confining it to the dying seem arbitrary at best. We are all dying, day by day: do the terminally ill really occupy a completely different moral category from the rest? A cancer patient’s suffering isn’t necessarily more unbearable than the more indefinite agony of someone living with multiple sclerosis or quadriplegia or manic depression. And not every unbearable agony is medical: if a man losing a battle with Parkinson’s disease can claim the relief of physician-assisted suicide, then why not a devastated widower, or a parent who has lost her only child?
This isn’t a hypothetical slippery slope. Jack Kevorkian spent his career putting this dark, expansive logic into practice. He didn’t just provide death to the dying; he helped anyone whose suffering seemed sufficient to warrant his deadly assistance. When The Detroit Free Press investigated his “practice” in 1997, it found that 60 percent of those he assisted weren’t actually terminally ill. In several cases, autopsies revealed “no anatomical evidence of disease.”
There’s good reason to be cautious of Kevorkian’s attitude. An earlier article about the results of legalized euthanasia in Washington and Oregon reveals that, according to state records, “all who died [from assisted suicide] cited ‘loss of autonomy’ as a reason for seeking it. Most also said they could no longer enjoy life and feared losing “‘dignity.’” Of course, the terminally ill aren’t alone in feeling a “loss of autonomy.” Should those who feel weighed down by federal government expansion enjoy the right to die as well?
Real virtues like courage and justice will always be powerful sources of human action. But petty, ambiguous modern virtues like “autonomy” and “dignity,” free as they are from any historical grounding or real meaning, weaken more quickly. Have they already lost the power to drive the right to die?