Doctor Death

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken April 7, 1996

Dr. Jack Kevorkian is spending more time practicing law than he is practicing medicine these days. Since 1990, Kevorkian has assisted in more than two dozen suicides, most of which involved patients who were not terminally ill. Now he's starting to face legal charges for some of those deaths.

Dr. Death, as he is called, is proving to be quite an escape artist. Twice he has been charged with violating the Michigan law that was designed specifically to stop him, but he has been acquitted both times. The most recent of those acquittals—which came just a few weeks ago—turned on the difference between killing and relieving suffering. The jury accepted Kevorkian's argument that his purpose was not so much to kill his patients as it was to ease their pain. Suicide, he argued, is ‘an inherent essence of human existence.’ Apparently, in postmodern doublespeak, non-existence is the essence of existence!

Dr. Kevorkian was back in front of the Michigan State Supreme Court on Monday, on trial for two more murders. Unfortunately, he is starting to get help from high places. Just this week, a New York court struck down two laws that would have prohibited physician-assisted suicide. More devastating was the decision made in March by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that it is unconstitutional for states to ban physician-assisted suicide. According to the court, ‘[t]here is a constitutionally protected liberty of interest in determining the time and manner of one's own death’ [Henry Weinstein, Philadelphia Inquirer, 3/7/96, p. A1].

The legal reasoning that supports the decision is appalling. For one thing, the court used abortion to legitimize assisted suicide. Here's what they said: ‘The legalization of abortion has not undermined our commitment to life generally; nor, as some predicted, has it led to to widespread infanticide. Similarly, there is no reason to believe that legalizing assisted suicide will lead to the horrific consequences its opponents suggest’ [Cardinal Roger Mahony, Philadelphia Inquirer, 3/26/96, p. A1]. That's an astonishing rationale. Every claim it makes is false. Yes, abortion has undermined our commitment to life. Yes, it has led to widespread infanticide. And yes, assisted suicide will lead to horrific consequences.

If you want proof, you can read the rest of the ruling. The court goes on to argue that ‘a decision of a duly appointed surrogate decision-maker is for all legal purposes the decision of the patient himself.’ Read that again. Now allow me to translate: if you're not in any kind of shape to decide to kill yourself, we'll decide for you.

People have made those kinds of decisions before, in places like Nazi Germany, just to name one [see Stefan KŸhl, The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism, New York: Oxford UP, 1994]. Or like the Netherlands, where euthanasia is now standard medical practice. Don't kid yourself. Not all mercy-killings are voluntary. In one recent year, lethal injections were given to 1,000 Dutch patients who had made no explicit request for euthanasia [David Feddes, The Banner, 8/29/94, p. 22]. When people start talking about the right to die, what they are really talking about is the right to kill.

Physician-assisted suicide represents a fundamental reversal in the practice of medicine in the West. For more than 2,000 years, Western medicine has been guided by the principles of the Hippocratic Oath. Until the time of Hippocrates (c. 460-377 b.c.), physicians were in charge of both healing and killing. If you wanted to get well, you called a doctor. If you wanted to die, you called a doctor. After all, the doctor was the one who had all the poisons as well as all the medicines. Doctor death indeed!

Hippocrates rightly recognized that that was a dangerous combination. When doctors become killers, it is hard for their patients to trust them. The Hippocratic Oath was designed to restore that trust. In it, doctors made this vow:

I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgement, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing. Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course. Similarly I will not give to a woman a pessary to cause abortion [see Nigel M. de S. Cameron, ‘Hippocratic Oath,’ in New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology, ed. by David J. Atkinson, et al., Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995, pp. 442-43].

Under the Hippocratic Oath, doctors committed themselves to heal and not to harm, to cure and not kill. They were not in the business of death, but in the business of life.

Physician-assisted suicide marks a return to the dark ages of medicine. For all his bluster about being very compassionate and up-to-date, Dr. Kevorkian is a 20th century witch doctor. His true medical colleagues are the undertakers of barbarism and paganism.

But physician-assisted suicide is more than just bad medicine, it is bad theology. The Bible does not ignore the suffering that sometimes precedes death. Job cursed the day of his birth and he asked: Why is light given to those in misery, and life to the bitter of soul, to those who long for death that does not come? (Job 3:20-21). That's a hard question, and the Bible doesn't give any easy answers.

But the Bible rejects the modern assumption that suffering is an evil to be avoided at all costs. Instead, it teaches that suffering can be redeemed, that God can bring growth and wholeness through suffering. There is strong comfort in the fact that God's own Son suffered before he died.

There is even greater comfort in the fact that he triumphed over death. Jesus was raised from the dead to become the Lord of both life and death. None of us lives to himself alone, and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord (Romans 14:7-8; cf. Job 14:5).

Dr. Death says that you live and die to yourself alone, without any obligation to God. The Lord of life, who was himself raised from the dead, says that your life and death belong to him.

© 2019 Tenth Presbyterian Church.

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For Internet posting, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Tenth Presbyterian Church.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. ©2019 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org