By Wesley J. Smith
I am often asked for interviews by students who are writing papers about the assisted suicide issue. I am always happy to oblige. Most ask why I oppose assisted suicide and whether I think guidelines can prevent the slippery slope. But, the other day, I was contacted by a high-schooler writing a paper about something I had never considered: the historical significance of Jack Kevorkian.
Having cut my anti-euthanasia advocacy teeth during Kevorkian’s assisted suicide spree in the 1990s, I was deeply involved in opposing everything he represented. But until I received this interview request, I had never considered what his legacy might be.
It is too soon to answer what, if any, historical significance Kevorkian will have. I hope none. If we are a moral society in one hundred years, he will be remembered—if he is remembered at all—as a crass social outlaw, operating at a time of cultural hesitancy, who preyed upon the despairing in pursuit of his own nihilistic ends. But there’s a chance we will not be a moral society. So, I did my best to put on my “objective hat” and give the most dispassionate answer I could.
Here is part of what I wrote:
I think Jack Kevorkian was a symptom—not a cause—of a society that is losing trust in institutions and principles. His success in defying the law for so long was a vote of “no confidence” in the practice of medicine itself and reflected a culture that increasingly extols the atomized self. In other words, we are a becoming solipsistic society: If I want it, that means it is right—so long as I am not hurting you.
We are also becoming a culture that is terrified of suffering and disdains serious limitations. Avoidance of suffering has become a very high cultural priority, sometimes to the point that it takes precedence over preserving life itself. That people can surmount their suffering and adjust to difficult circumstances—and later be glad they are still alive (and this includes the terminally ill)—too often gets lost in the stampede.
Kevorkian understood and exploited these aspects of our culture. At first, he spoke candidly about his true goal [such as human experimentation on people being euthanized], and he wrote quite explicitly about them in his book Prescription: Medicide. But when people reacted negatively, he quickly changed his PR strategy, asserting that—contrary to the book—his primary purpose was to prevent purposeless suffering.
With that, everything turned around and he received much support in the media and increasing approval among the public. The focus became almost exclusively on the people who were suffering, not on the act being done or the impact Kevorkian had on families. The devastated relatives of some of Kevorkian’s victims told me how vulnerable and depressed their late loved ones had been. But the families’ pain—and the susceptibility of those who flew to Michigan to be killed—was rarely discussed in the popular media.
Some of Kevorkian’s assisted suicide victims died in the back of his rusty van of carbon monoxide poisoning, delivered from a canister he brought for the occasion. Surely, I thought at the time, people will turn on him now! But, I was stunned that the utter lack of dignity surrounding these deaths mattered not a whit to so many people.
Would we be talking as much about assisted suicide today without Kevorkian? Probably not. He didn’t generate the issue, but he did tap deeply into an intensifying cultural current. There is no question that his audacity brought assisted suicide to the media fore, as a consequence of which the issue reached critical mass sooner than it might have otherwise. Indeed, the fact that so many people were not turned off by his weird persona and death obsession—for example, he used human blood as part of the medium in his macabre paintings—I think revealed a lot about where our culture was headed.
It is also notable that about seventy percent of Kevorkian’s assisted suicide victims were not terminally ill. Most were disabled and depressed. Five were found in their autopsies not even to have been ill. And yet the media continually described (and describes) him as helping the dying to end their intractable suffering.
In summary: Kevorkian was a radical iconoclast, who defied convention and cut past the pretense that assisted suicide is about terminal illness and is intended as the very last resort when nothing else can be done to prevent suffering. That is not true now, and for Kevorkian, it never was.
Many people disagree with my critical assessment and believe that Kevorkian should go down in history as a courageous, if eccentric, pioneer of the putative human right to suicide. As they say, the victors write the history books. The kind of society we leave for our posterity will ultimately determine which view of Kevorkian becomes the reigning historical understanding.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and a consultant for the Patients Rights Council.
Editor’s note. This appeared at firstthings.com.