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Kevorkian Lies, and Suicide by Thomas S. Szasz

The following essay is reproduced here by permission of Sheldon Richman, Editor, Ideas on Liberty.
Ideas on Liberty is published by The Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, NY 10533.
Szasz, T. (2001, May). Kevorkian, Lies, and Suicide. Ideas on Liberty, 51 (5), 35-36.



Thomas S. Szasz, M.D.

"We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I don't know."
--W. H. Auden

Jack Kevorkian became famous, allegedly for helping persons commit suicide. His supporters continue to hail him as the person who put physician-assisted suicide on the political map of America. This is a false image created by Kevorkian and the media. Webster's Dictionary defines suicide as "an act or an instance of taking one's own life voluntarily and intentionally." Strictly speaking, then, assisted suicide is an oxymoron.

This does not mean that one person may not help another kill himself by furnishing him the means to do so, for example, by selling him a rope, a gun, or a drug. We do not regard gun shop owners or pharmacists as practicing suicide assistance, and do not call killing oneself by means of these tools "assisted suicide." Similarly, we do not regard persons with access to lethal drugs who kill themselves with them, such as health care personnel, as having committed "pharmaceutical company?assisted suicide." However, we regard persons who lack access to lethal drugs but kill themselves with such drugs made available to them by doctors as having committed "physician?assisted suicide."

The so-called problem of physician-assisted suicide thus comes down to a simple question: Why do people need the help of doctors to kill themselves with drugs? The answer is obvious: Because the trade in drugs useful for killing oneself is illegal and anyone interested in terminating his own life with a drug needs a doctor to supply it.

Misleadingly, Kevorkian's subjects were called "patients." However, Kevorkian had no license to practice medicine and the people he "helped" did not come to him to be diagnosed or treated. His clients traveled, sometimes thousands of miles, to secure his services. If they could do that, they could have killed themselves by other means, such as jumping off a tall building. They came to Kevorkian, then, either to obtain lethal drugs to which they had no access but Kevorkian did, albeit illegally; or they came to die by Kevorkian's hands rather than their own, anxious to depict medical killing as "therapy." Kevorkian was eager to oblige, portraying himself as a heroic fighter for a right to suicide.

"Medicide" and "Mercitron"

In his book, Prescription: Medicide, Kevorkian stated that his "ultimate aim [is] not simply to help suffering or doomed persons to kill themselves -- that is merely ... [a] distasteful professional obligation (now called medicide) ... What I find most satisfying is the prospect of making possible the performance of invaluable experiments or other beneficial acts ... in a word, obitiatry." (The term "medicide" is typical Kevorkian: as germicide means killing germs, so medicide means, or ought to mean, killing medicine or killing doctors.) Obitiatry, Kevorkian explained, "is the name of the medical specialty concerned with the treatment or doctoring of death to achieve some sort of beneficial result." According to Kevorkian, death is "doctored"; the doctoring is done by obitiatry, not doctors; and the subject's death is caused by a machine, not a person:

"[N]o longer is there a need -- or even an excuse -- for anyone to be the direct mediator of the death of another who is alert, rational, and who for some compelling reason chooses to, or must, die. Performance of that repulsive task should now be relegated exclusively to a device like the Mercitron, which the doomed subject must activate. ... medicide has now been eliminated as an ethical problem for the medical profession ... The device's impact on morality extends to execution chambers as well. ... Only by using the Mercitron ... [can] the execution be made even more humane. ... The Mercitron can diffuse it [moral guilt] even more by eliminating entirely the need for anyone to inject anything."

To eliminate the person as a moral agent responsible for his act, the psychiatrist attributes suicide to mental illness. Similarly, to eliminate both the physician who kills and the subject who allows himself to be killed as moral agents responsible for their actions, Kevorkian attributes killing "doomed persons" to a machine he calls the Mercitron. Who makes and operates the Mercitron? Kevorkian. He gets credit for his great discovery. No one is blamed for the deaths "it" causes.

Kevorkian on Suicide

The word "suicide" refers to voluntary (non-coerced) self-killing. Kevorkian uses it to denote killings of all sorts, for example, the killing "of fetuses, infants, minor children, and every human being incapable of giving direct informed consent." Abortion, infanticide, judicially authorized execution, and gangland killing are, in Kevorkian's vocabulary, all instances of "suicide." Satisfied with that classification, Kevorkian concluded: "The above list of categories encompasses all potential candidates for the humane killing known as euthanasia, by others or the self."

To the press and the public, Kevorkian represented his activities as a medical obligation, imposed on him by his conscience and medical degree. But Josef Goebbels knew better, and was more honest, when he said, "We speak not in order to say something, but in order to obtain a particular effect." So Kevorkian, when asked in court, "have you ever wanted a patient to die?," replied, under oath: "Never." Calling the prosecutor "a lying psychotic," Kevorkian denied that "he has ever assisted in a suicide.'' Finally, to prove his sincerity, he threatened that, if convicted, he would starve himself to death: "I know they are going to force-feed me ... and I'm not going to go along with it." Kevorkian's lawyer, David Gorosh, said his client will ultimately be "lauded as a hero in history."

Actions Speak Louder than Words

To make himself appear a medical savior, Kevorkian falsely diagnosed his "patients" as dying. To make himself a medical martyr, he falsely promised to die for his cause.

Eventually, Kevorkian's luck ran out and he was sent to prison for his crimes to which he appears to have been driven by his megalomaniacal vanity. Has he killed himself by self-starvation, as he promised he would? No. Either he has changed his mind or he never meant what he said. If he changed his mind, he has availed himself of precisely that option which he denied his victims. And if he never meant what he said, then he has demonstrated the fatal unreliability of his diagnoses concerning his "patients'" alleged terminal illnesses.

Kevorkian spends his time in jail seeking freedom by filing appeals. His lawyer claims that Kevorkian "suffers from high blood pressure, always wears a sweater because he's cold, and looks like a skeleton." Kevorkian wore a sweater and looked like a skeleton before he entered prison and, from all we know, had high blood pressure as well.

"Liberty," declared Lord Acton, "is the prevention of control by others." Either the state controls the means for suicide and thus deprives persons of a fundamental right to self determination, or we control it and assume responsibility for the manner of our own death. Giving physician-agents of the state the power to prevent suicide by psychiatric coercion and to provide "suicide" by medical prescription does not enhance patient autonomy, as its advocates claim. It enhances the prestige and power of the Therapeutic State and its bureaucratic agents.

Copyright 2001, by The Foundation for Economic Education

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