HBO tells us “You Don’t Know Jack,” referring to Jack Kevorkian, played by Al Pacino in HBO’s recent movie of the same name, or as some might call it, a hagiography of Dr. Death. Kevorkian came to notoriety in the 1990’s as a leading advocate of assisted suicide for the terminally and chronically ill. Eventually convicted of second degree murder, Kevorkian was due for a retrospective of his life’s “work” by his admirers.
Wesley J. Smith, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, detailed some of Kevorkian’s gruesome history, including his attempts to gain access to death row prisoners’ executions, harvesting one of his assisted suicide’s kidneys and offering them to willing takers on a first come, first served basis, and infusing a man with cadaver blood and thereby giving him hepatitis. Jack Kevorkian sought to decode the “mystery of death” through experimentation on living human persons at the moment of death. Smith makes a persuasive case that Kevorkian’s crusade for legalizing assisted suicide was merely a means to an end of being able to conduct experiments on dying patients. Kevorkian’s own impure motives animated his philosophy of death.
Kevorkian has a kindred spirit in Ludwig Minelli, the founder of Switzerland’s inaptly named Dignitas clinic, which charges people significant sums to help them self-destruct. Minelli believes that “even healthy people have reasonable motives to end their lives.” One might counter that even wealthy people have motives to profit from the deaths of others. The Dignitas clinic “seemed like a factory” to Daniel Gall, calling it “an awful, ugly place” after his sister and her husband killed themselves there in January 2008. Minelli’s clinic has helped make Switzerland a landmark for “suicide tourism” as foreigners travel there from more restrictive countries.
Two of these suicide tourists, Britons Sir Edward Downes and his wife, Joan, purchased a his-and-hers package from Dignitas. Lady Downes had terminal pancreatic cancer; Sir Edward was not terminally ill.
The Downes’ children accompanied their parents to Switzerland and watched, weeping, as their parents drank a clear liquid, laid down on a bed, and died. Joan Downes had written a letter to her friends and family explaining, “I have no religion and as far as I am concerned it will be an ‘offswitch’ so after you have thought about it a bit don’t worry.” Her parting advice to her friends and family was to “enjoy it while it lasts.”
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin also struggled against pancreatic cancer, though he did not reach for the “offswitch.” Instead, after his terminal prognosis, he spoke against the “culture of death” and showed us how to die. In 1996, after reading a news report about Cardinal Bernardin’s condition, I wrote him a letter on behalf of a twenty-three-year-old friend who also was dying of pancreatic cancer. I told the Cardinal I was praying for him and asked if he could send an encouraging letter to my friend, who was not a Christian believer. Taking time from his quickly fleeting last moments, Bernardin wrote movingly and eloquently to both of us, demonstrating his ministry to others with cancer.
I was so touched by his actions, and I thought of how he really showed the love of Christ through his compassion toward my friend during the midst of his own suffering. My friend lived less than a year from his initial diagnosis with pancreatic cancer, leaving behind a widowed young bride. We all grieved his loss, and we tried unsuccessfully to make sense of the tragedy. In the midst of that pain, Cardinal Bernardin had used his own suffering to reach out to the dying young man and his loved ones.
Since Bernardin’s death, several other prominent figures have endured terrible health issues, and yet also showed us how to die. When President Ronald Reagan revealed that he had Alzheimer’s disease, he courageously described it as “beginning the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life.” He foresaw that the illness would place a burden on his family, and he wished he could somehow spare his wife Nancy from the painful experience. And yet, he survived for a decade after his diagnosis, lovingly cared for by his wife, revealing the true meaning of suffering a heroic death. Similarly, John Paul II demonstrated how to face trials bravely through his struggle with Parkinson’s disease.
Kevorkian, Minelli and his Dignitas Clinic and the Downes collectively present a stark contrast with Cardinal Benardin, Ronald Reagan and John Paul II. Is there any doubt about which one of these two approaches to death is admirable and which is not?
First published in First Things in May 2010