Ten years ago Michigan pathologist Dr. Jack Kevorkian assisted Janet Adkins with her death. In the years since, Kevorkian has helped more than 130 persons to die, and is serving time for second degree murder.
One state, Oregon, has legalized assisted suicide. Maine will have it on the ballot in November. Thoughtful Christians are divided on the issue. To help our discussion, United Church News is presenting articles by two UCC ministers, Geoffrey D. Drutchas and Robert K. Nace.
Ten years ago this summer, 54-year-old Janet Adkins flew into Detroit Metro Airport from her home city of Seattle for an appointment with Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Two days later she was dead, the result of a suicide facilitated by the Detroit pathologist in the back of his battered van.
Immediate public reaction to the death of Janet Adkins and the assisted suicides of others was mixed. Some promptly condemned Dr. Kevorkian as a moral scoundrel and murderer and dubbed him "Dr. Death." Others applauded Kevorkian as a great humanitarian. The larger public, however, appeared deeply ambivalent.
Nevertheless, the public was clearly moved by the plight of those whom Dr. Kevorkian claimed to be helping. At least initially, the public also accepted Dr. Kevorkian's tacit representation of himself as a David going to battle against the Goliath of a medical, legal and religious establishment that had become deaf and blind to the suffering of the chronically and terminally ill. Year after year, it seemed that no Michigan jury would ever criminally convict Dr. Kevorkian. But all this changed in 1998 when Dr. Kevorkian brazenly injected Thomas Youk, a 52-year-old man suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease, with a lethal drug dose on "60 Minutes." This shift to direct, active euthanasia deeply offended public sensibilities. Rather than advancing the debate about assisted suicide or the needs of the chronically and terminally ill, the "60 Minutes" episode virtually shut it down. When Dr. Kevorkian was subsequently convicted of second degree murder and sent to prison, where he now sits, there was no audible public lament. Media attention also turned elsewhere.
Unfortunately, little, if anything, has happened since to make assisted suicide less tempting for the future. Right now, legislation is pending in the U.S. Congress to legally protect physicians who dispense controlled substances to relieve the pain and suffering of the terminally ill. But this proposed legislation will not likely address or resolve some of the fundamental concerns that propelled Kevorkian's reign as a bandit-doctor.
Mrs. Adkins, for instance, was not driven to suicide by fear of physical pain. Instead, she was afraid of literally losing her mind and every shred of human dignity along with it due to her chronic, debilitating illness. Other Kevorkian clients were prompted to pursue suicide out of sheer loneliness or because of concerns about emotionally and financially burdening their families.
What this indicates is that a more holistic approach is still called for in responding to the circumstances of those who are chronically or terminally ill. There is a crying need in our country for better catastrophic health care coverage on a universal basis. Better funded and deployed hospice services would also help address the medical and spiritual needs of the ill and dying.
Meanwhile, our UCC congregations need to examine the quality and depth of our own pastoral outreach ministries with the chronically and terminally ill. We should be their public advocates. We should take it upon ourselves to educate people about caring alternatives to assisted suicide in the face of illness and death.
Those of us opposed to assisted suicide have been granted a reprieve in our battle. But the needs of the ill and the dying remain. So do the anxieties of the public at large. If the door to assisted suicide is to be kept tightly closed, then it is incumbent upon all of us, especially in our Christian churches, to insure that the needs of the ill and dying really are being addressed.
The Rev. Geoffrey G. Drutchas is senior pastor at St. Paul UCC in Taylor, Mich., located near Detroit Metro Airport, the site of many early meetings between Dr. Kevorkian and those seeking assistance with suicide. He is the author of "Is Life Sacred?", available for $18.95 + $3.50 s/h from Pilgrim Press at 800-537-3394.
Modern hi-tech medicine has done great things for me. When I was 45, I was in constant pain. But an orthopedic surgeon opened my back and fused two vertebrae and I have been relatively pain free for the last 30-some years.
When I was 65, physicians stopped my heart and by-passed five blocked arteries. What they really did was by-pass the "natural" time of my death and gave me 10 wonderful years of retirement. At 75, additional chest pain led surgeons to reinforce my arteries with little ringlets. Again, they by-passed my "natural" death and here I am, almost 78, still full of energy and life.
Now, let us fast forward and imagine that I am 87. Ruth, my beloved wife of almost 60 years, has died with a colon cancer and lots of morphine. I am alone with all the momentos of our life together. Embarrassingly, often I wet my pants. I lose my balance and fall down the stairs. My son says: "Dad, don't you think it is time to go to an 'assisted living' community?" I say, "Thanks, son, but I would rather die here and now and quickly." He goes to my personal physician for help. My physician says, "I know that is what your dad wants, but if I help it will be considered a criminal act for which I would be prosecuted."
But in my 50 years as a pastor, I have had hundreds tell me that is exactly how they would like to die: quickly and painlessly, at home, surrounded by the symbols of their life and their loves.
This summer it is ten years since Dr. Kevorkian assisted Janet Adkins in her death and made it public. A few other physicians have reported P.A.D. (physician aid in dying) but most have said, "We're already doing it. We just keep quiet. Leave well enough alone." Since 1990 Dr. Kevorkian has acknowledged assisting dozens of others. He did not solicit these people; they came to him asking for help. Surviving family members have testified to his thoroughness, thoughtfulness, care and compassion, and their gratitude for his help.
In theology, we deal with paradoxical truths. We speak of God as both transcendent and immanent. We speak of Christ as both human and divine. On the issue of physician aid in dying we are dealing with the paradox of dependence and responsibility. We do not choose to be born and we cannot choose not to die. We are created by God and our life is not ours to squander, to take away or wish away OR to hang onto too tightly. To hang onto too tightly is the idolatry of our life, a pervasive sin of our culture enhanced by the skill of modern medicine.
On the other hand, we are responsible for our own lives.
So who is responsible for my death? Do I have a right and responsibility to take an active part in the time and manner of my death? The fact is, I already do.
The very existence of medicine is a human exercise in the time and manner of our deaths. When I submitted to by-pass surgery, I exercised responsibility for the manner and time of my death. There is little moral difference between asking the physician, "Will you help me live?" or "Will you help me die?" Both are requests asking the physician to take an active part in the time and manner of our death. The first is a request to postpone our death, the other to facilitate our death.
As a matter of justice and compassion, we should affirm the right and responsibility of every individual to have a part in the time and manner of his or her own death. And, in exercising this responsibility, when we ask for the assistance of a physician, that person should not be guilty of a criminal act.
The Rev. Robert K. Nace, pastor of Zion's Reformed UCC in Greenville, Pa., for 27 years and a former General Synod moderator, is now retired in Peterborough, N.H. He is the author of "A Word Less Heard: A Mainliner's Take on the Issues," a collection of sermons available for $15 + $1.50 s/h from 20 Mountain View Drive, Peterborough, NH 03458.