Lessons on the Limits of Medicalization of Life and Death

by Christopher White, Ramsey Institute Project Director on October 1, 2014

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The October issue of First Things magazine offers a chilling column from Kalman Kaplan, Clinical Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine. In the column Kaplan chronicles his correspondence with Martha Wichorek—who would later to become the 70th person to die using the assistance of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the infamous “Dr. Death.” Kaplan writes:

Martha’s case raises broader issues: the availability of assisted suicide to physically sound but depressed individuals; the “quick” solution of death for the elderly when they feel useless; thinking of death as a “right” rather than a fact; and too much social concern with the legal rather than the psychological condition of those contemplating suicide.

I remember well when I first heard of Kevorkian. It was in the mid-1990s, and I was riding in the car with my aunt in the small southern town where I grew up. The car in front of us had a campaign-style bumper sticker that read: “Kevorkian for White House Doctor.” I was confused. My aunt—by no means a fan of the then sitting President—explained to me who Kevorkian was and why that bumper sticker’s message was, in her words, “pure evil,” regardless of one’s political inclinations.

Upon further reflection, I think that car ride provided me with one of the first lessons on the meaning and purposes of the practice of assisted suicide. My aunt explained it in simpler terms, but Dr. Leon Kass would later explain it in much more eloquent language in his essay, “Why Doctors Must Not Kill: Neither for Love or Money.”

In the essay, Kass criticizes the school of autonomy, which drives much of the thought behind physician assisted suicide efforts. Patients—like Martha Wichorek—believe that it’s their right to die when they choose, and doctors should aid them in this decision. Over the last ten years the push for physician-assisted suicide has gained more momentum than Kass or Kevorkian could have probably imagined. But as Kass writes in his essay:

The present crisis that leads some to press for active euthanasia is really an opportunity to learn the limits of the medicalization of life and death and to recover an appreciation of living with and against mortality.

Unfortunately, Martha Wichorek never learned such lessons—but her story, beautifully shared by Kaplan—should be heeded by all of us and read widely.

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