Dr Kevorkian and Assisted Suicide

Author: J. Michael Venditti


C. S. Lewis, the great Christian apologist, once told a friend of what he regarded as a mystical phenomenon. He had married late in life--well into his sixties--and his wife died of cancer within a couple of years of their marriage. During the time his wife was ill, which was pretty much all their married life, he prayed asking God if he might endure the suffering for her. Not long after that, his wife's condition began to improve somewhat, while he began to experience a rather puzzling pain in his legs, which got worse and worse as time went on, to the point of being almost crippling. After his wife died, the pain mysteriously disappeared; and Lewis was convinced that God had allowed him to suffer some of her pain as he had asked.

I'm sure some of you here have had the experience of watching a loved one die slowly and feeling helpless to do anything for them. And I'm sure that some of you would have been more than willing to take on that person's pain to spare the one you loved. Watching someone you love die a slow and painful death is, by far, the most difficult thing we ever have to do in this life. Those who have done it would probably give anything not to do it again. Which is why so many of us are confused, or perhaps totally taken in, by Dr. Kevorkian.

I'm going to forgo speaking to you about today's Scripture lessons because the time has come for us to talk about Dr. Kevorkian. But I want to warn you: first, it's going to be a long homily because there's a lot to cover here; and, if you have had that experience of watching a loved one suffer, and thereby have become convinced that Kevorkian is some sort of saint who is only trying to help people, you will not like what you hear today. I'm going to attempt to explain to you why what Dr. Kevorkian does is wrong, and why a jury which acquitted him of violating a Michigan law was also wrong. It's important that we do this, because what's at stake for us is a teaching of the Catholic Church which is so fundamental to the Gospel message. That's not true of everything the Church teaches, and there will always be people in the Church who will have difficulty with some things the Church teaches. But what the Church teaches about human life--its origin, its sanctity, its purpose, and its final end--is so basic to the Gospel message that it cannot be a question for debate.

That being said, it puts a great deal of responsibility on me to explain it clearly. It is not a task I relish. Should I explain it poorly or in such a way that causes people to reject it, I would bear the primary responsibility to God for your failure to believe. But I am a priest; it is my job, and I will not shy from it.

Now, in trying to defend the teaching of the Church on human life I'm up against a very great barrier: the barrier of your emotions. No one agrees with Dr. Kevorkian because they've studied the question ethically and philosophically and reach a conclusion that he is right. They agree with him because what he does appeals to their emotions, particularly, their sense of compassion: he's relieving people's suffering; how can that be wrong? And we all have this tendency, as soon as someone tugs on our heart strings, to turn our brains off. It reminds me--and I'm using this only as an example and not to make a political statement--of Mr. Clinton and his health care plan. Please, understand, this is only an example; I'm not intending to make a statement about the plan one way or another, and please don't accuse me of that. But, as an example only, regarding the health care plan, everyone in Washington with a pocket calculator is telling the president that it just won't work; the numbers just don't add up. There is no way we can afford to do this without taxing the country into abject poverty. But then the president goes to a town meeting, and he says, "Yeah, but what about all those poor people who can't afford a doctor, and all those old people who can't afford medicine? Don't we have to do something for them?" And all of a sudden the numbers magically disappear, and reality just fades away. Which is a very dangerous thing. It's the oldest trick in the book: you get people to suspend rational judgment and ignore common sense by convincing them that to do otherwise means that they are not compassionate. In retrospect we often look back at Germany in the '30s and say, "How come the Germans didn't see what horrible things Hitler was doing?" The fact was, they did see. But they had been convinced to suspend judgment because Hitler appealed to their emotions, principally the humiliation and anger they suffered at Versai, and the pride they felt at the promised restoration of national dignity again. So, had they thought about it long enough they would have understood that there was no purpose to conquering Poland; but ... doesn't it feel good to be a winner for a change! They saw what was happening. They had to; it was happening right in front of their faces. But they didn't want to see it, because it just felt so could to be proud of their country again. You see how it works? This is exactly what's being played out in this whole Kevorkian scenario. The goal of Kevorkian and his lawyers and those who support him is to get us to suspend our rational judgment by appealing to our emotions, in this case, our sense of compassion.

Now, what exactly is the truth regarding human life? It's very simple. Life is something that we have on loan from God for a while. It is his to give and his to take. And whatever suffering we endure in the living of that life, it is God's will that we endure it patiently and to the end; as our Lord himself said, "If you would be my disciple, you must deny yourself, take up your cross every day, and follow me." Now, I know what's going on in your mind right now: you're saying to yourself, "You mean that God wants us to suffer?" And of course the answer is, "no." But that's the wrong question. The question is not, "Does God want us to suffer?" but, "Does God want us to endure the suffering he allows?" And part of the problem here is that many people don't see the difference between the two questions. There is a difference between God wanting us to suffer and allowing us to suffer. And the reason we don't see the difference is because we don't know why God allows suffering in the world. That's one of the oldest questions in Christianity: Why does God allow evil to exist. No one knows the answer to that except God. It's one of the questions we will be allowed to ask at our final judgment. But it is a fact that he does allow evil and suffering to exist in the world, otherwise they wouldn't. And it is a fact that he does expect us to endure whatever suffering he allows us to experience, otherwise our Lord would not have said what he did, he would not have been crucified, his apostles would not have been martyred, the Church would not have undergone persecution. So, the first obstacle we have to overcome in order to understand what the Church teaches about human life is the fact that God does allow suffering in the world, that it's his will that we endure it, and that he gives us the grace to endure it. That does not mean that God wants us to suffer. But, as one of my professors in the seminary used to say, "God does not will evil, but he does will that the evil he allows will not be the worst for us." Whether he allows it as a test, or as a recompense for sin (ours or someone else's), or for some reason that we cannot begin to comprehend, we know only that he will not abandon us in our suffering, but that he always gives us the grace to endure whatever he allows. In the language of theology we refer to this as the distinction between the active and permissive wills of God, the active will being what God directly intends for us, and the permissive will being what he allows for us even if he doesn't directly intend it. The obstacle here is the fact that we do not know why God allows things to happen. That's something we cannot know until we see God face to face.

Now, the primary reason that what Dr. Kevorkian does is wrong goes back to the very roots of the Christian concept of creation. Kevorkian's notion of assisted suicide is based on the presupposition that we are masters of our own fate, and that we have complete and absolute sovereignty over our own lives. Christians have never, ever believed that. From the very beginning of the Bible, in the book of Genesis, life is given to man in a conditional manner. Adam and Eve are tossed out of the garden because they didn't live according to those conditions. Cain is thrown out because he slew his brother, Able, thus doing what only God is allowed to do. And to his question, "Am I my brother's keeper?" the correct answer was, "Yes, you should have been, but you weren't." One of the problems here is that we Christians often use language which, while it serves a purpose in one argument, only confuses another. When we talk about abortion, for example, we often use the term "right to life," the idea being that the unborn have the same right to life that we have. In essence that's not true. None of us have a right to life. My life belongs not to me, but to God. It's given to me for a purpose that is not my own: in my case, to be used in the life of a priest, teaching and sanctifying God's people. In your case, life was given to you with another purpose, whether that's to raise a family or whatever. But in any case, both the life that we have and the purpose of it are not our own. We are only functionaries. We are only caretakers. We do not own the house, we don't even rent the house; it's almost as if we are simply baby-sitting the house while someone's on vacation. And when they come back, everything has to be exactly as they say it must be, because the house isn't ours. It isn't even given to us for our use; we use it as God alone directs. So, sometimes we confuse ourselves when we talk about the right to life, or about life as a gift. It is neither of those things. But if one is going to begin, as Dr. Kevorkian does, from the point of view that my life is mine, and I can do with it what I please, then clearly all the rules have changed. Unfortunately, this is not a point to which one can argue. The fact that my life belongs not to me but to God is not something that can be proven by argument; it can only be believed. And this is the next great obstacle we have to overcome in order to understand the Church's teaching; because, outside of the faith, none of this can make any sense. An atheist cannot believe that his life belongs to anyone but himself.

Now, in Michigan, where Dr. Kevorkian practices--if you want to call it that--, there is a law which makes assisted suicide a felony. The jury who tried the case found him innocent for a very interesting reason. They said that, even though he admitted fully to breaking the letter of the law, he should not be found guilty because his primary intention was to end the man's suffering, not to end his life. In other words, what the jury is saying is that the ends justify the means. I'm going to explain to you now why this is wrong.

Now, you know as well as I that there are situations that come up where we want to do something good, but the only way to do it, it seems, is to do something bad. The classic example is the poor man who has no money to buy food. Does he have a right to steal in order to feed his family? Another classic example is the question of whether you can perform an abortion to save the life of the mother. The question of assisted suicide is similar. Is it permitted to do something good, even if it ends up having a bad effect that you don't want? And, for many people, questions like this are easily resolved by simply applying the notion that the ends justify the means. But the Catholic Church rejects this notion. It is not found in the Gospel, it is not found in Tradition, and it has never been taught by the Church. The Seventh Commandment doesn't say, "Thou shalt not steal unless your family is starving," it says, "Thou shalt not steal." But such questions exist, and have to be answered; and if you're not going to use the principal that the ends justify the means, than what principle are you going to use? Well, as it turns out, the Catholic Church has a principal that it uses which is rooted in Scripture, is found in Tradition, and has been taught by the Church for a thousand years. It's called the principal of double effect. While it sounds complicated when it's first explained to you, it's really very easy to understand; and I think you'll find it very helpful whenever you're faced with questions of this nature. So what I'm going to do now is explain exactly what the principle of double effect is, than I will give you an example of how it is successfully applied to a particular moral problem, then we will see if we can apply it successfully to justify Dr. Kevorkian's notion of assisted suicide.

The principal of double effect states that it is morally acceptable to do something that has an evil result provided that three conditions are fulfilled:

1. the action that you are doing must, itself, be morally good or at least morally neutral;

2. you must not directly intend the evil result; and

3. there must be no other alternatives.

Now, I know that sounds confusing, but let me explain it with an example. The example I'm going to use is a very modern one that comes up all the time. It's the case of an ectopic pregnancy.

When a woman conceives, the actual conception, as you know, occurs in the woman's fallopian tube. Her ovary releases an egg which travels down the fallopian tube toward her uterus. During intercourse, sperm travel through the uterus up into the fallopian tube. The actual conception of the child occurs about halfway down the fallopian tube, where it immediately begins to multiply and develop. So far so good. Every pregnancy begins this way.

Now, in a normal pregnancy, the conceived child continues its journey down the fallopian tube into the uterus. It implants itself onto the uterine wall, where it continues to develop and grow until it's time to be born. In an ectopic pregnancy, however, something goes wrong. The child that has been conceived does not continue its journey into the uterus; it stops, and implants itself onto the wall of the fallopian tube. As you can guess, this is a big problem. First of all, the fallopian tube does not contain enough nourishment to sustain a developing child for nine months of pregnancy. Even if it did, the fallopian tube is not nearly large enough to carry a developing child; and, should the pregnancy be allowed to continue, the fallopian tube would become inflamed and diseased, and would eventually kill both mother and child. There is no way that an ectopic pregnancy can be brought to term successfully. It is certain that, if it is allowed to continue, both mother and child will die.

Question: it is morally acceptable to terminate the pregnancy? To answer the question we apply the principal of double effect. Remember the conditions.

1. The action itself must be morally good or neutral. In this case, the action of removing a diseased fallopian tube is no different than the removal of a diseased spleen or a diseased appendix. It is a morally neutral act.

2. You cannot directly intend the evil result. In this case, we're not intending the death of a child. We're intending to remove an inflamed and diseased fallopian tube, which we would do regardless of the cause, whether a child was present or not. This does cause the death of the child, but that is not our intention or our reason for doing it.

3. There are no other alternatives. Well, that's certainly the case here. There is no way the mother can be saved unless the tube is removed; and there's no way the child can be saved no matter what we do. So, there are no other alternatives. So by applying the principal of double effect we see that it is morally acceptable to terminate an ectopic pregnancy; and so the Catholic Church has always taught.

Now, let's apply the principal of double effect to Dr. Kevorkian's notion of assisted suicide. Here's a man who manufactures machines which kill, either by injecting poison into the blood stream, or producing toxic gas for someone to inhale. Not only does he produce these machines, but he sets them up in people's homes, teaches people how to use them, and stands by to make sure that they operate properly. Remember the three conditions of the principle.

1. Is what he's doing morally good or neutral. No way. These machines have only one purpose: to kill. They don't do anything else. When you think about it, what is the difference between one of these machines and a loaded pistol? They both do the same thing. The only difference, I suppose, is that one has all kinds of gadgets on it, and you can pretend that you're doing some kind of medical procedure and thus try to hide from yourself the fact that you're killing someone. But in reality, both the loaded pistol and the machine do exactly the same thing, with exactly the same results. No, it is not morally neutral.

2. Does he directly intend the evil result? Does he directly intend the deaths of the people he does this to? I think it's quite obvious that he does. And this is where the jury got confused. The jury is trying to pretend that, because his ultimate goal is the relief of suffering, therefore he doesn't necessarily want these people to die. But that's a lot of hog-wash. The very means by which he hopes to relieve their suffering is death. It's not like the ectopic pregnancy. There you had a truly neutral act, the removal of a diseased organ, which results in something we don't want, the death of a child. In this case, however, the death of the person involved is the very means by which the desired result is to be attained. So, there is no way that we can say he does not directly intend that these people die, even if his goal is to relieve their suffering.

3. Are there any other alternatives? You bet there are. There are people in this world right now who are dying of cancer, of Lou Gerrehig's disease, even AIDS, who are suffering from Alzheimer's, and who offer that suffering up for themselves, for their loved ones, for the Holy Souls, for the Church. And if they persevere, they'll die as saints. That's an alternative. It's a very beautiful alternative.

Sometimes, you will hear people who support Dr. Kevorkian use an old slogan which was first used when the question of euthanasia first surfaced. The slogan is "Death with Dignity." It's a very dangerous slogan. In effect, all slogans are dangerous and should be avoided at all times. Slogans are dangerous because they do not, and cannot, teach any truth. A slogan has only one purpose, and that is to sell something: to make something, that you would not ordinarily want, sound good; whether it's for a product, such as "Coke's the One," or for a political agenda, such as "Death with Dignity." Please do not be fooled by anyone, even if he's a priest, who goes around hospitals pulling plugs on respirators saying "Death with Dignity." The teaching of the Church has absolutely nothing to do with slogans of any kind. Slogans should be avoided at all costs.

Who is Dr. Jack Kevorkian? I'll tell you who he is: he's a murderer. By saying that, I do not presume to judge him; and, if he is truthful about his motives, then he really does believe that he's doing the greatest possible good for his fellow men. And I'm certain that the Lord will take that into account when it's his time to be judged. But the fact that our Lord may choose to be merciful to him on the day of his judgment does not mean that what he does is right. Nor do his motives justify what he does. It is a good thing to want to relieve the suffering of others. Under no circumstance, and for no reason, is it acceptable to directly intend the death of an innocent human being, no matter what the reason. If we want to call ourselves Catholics and even Christians, then that is something that we absolutely must believe.