Robert Bork’s ground-breaking book, Slouching Towards Gomorrah, warned that our society is on a suicidal collision course with radical individualism. I think that’s because we have forgotten God and are searching desperately to fill that God-shaped vacuum. With God out of the picture, people are free to pursue anything and everything that promises to fill the leanness in their souls, without regard to traditional moral standards—and sometimes in direct opposition to them. Those who don’t get what they want out of life, in the name of individual autonomy, are also encouraged to end it all. And many have.
The most prominent recent apostle of this approach is Jack Kevorkian, the pathologist who died on June 3 at the age of 83. Kevorkian, who “assisted” more than 130 people in taking their own lives between 1990 and 2000, earned a fitting moniker: Dr. Death. And he had no illusions about the compatibility of euthanasia and religious belief.
“Religious dogma has become part of the marrow of humanity,” he said. “We can't get rid of it. There should be absolutely no connection between medicine and religion, but there is, and it's paralyzing.”
“Going through medical school,” Dr. Death noted, “I knew euthanasia wasn't immoral, because my mind just wasn't encumbered with all this crap, you know?”
Kevorkian had a dogma, too: radical individualism. Kevorkian said that his “highest ethical principle” was the right to self-determination. And such a right makes sense, if God is out of the picture and if you don’t look too closely. Kevorkian was a true radical. According to The New York Times,
He did not appear to screen patients to determine whether they were actually close to death, and he seemed to make no efforts to get counseling for those who might have wanted to live longer.
He devised “suicide machines” that could deliver drugs or carbon monoxide gas and could be set off by the patients. He carted the equipment to patients in his battered Volkswagen van and left many of the resulting 130 or more bodies at emergency rooms or even in hotel rooms.
While many in the “right to die” movement have since disavowed Kevorkian’s methods, they dutifully have lined up behind his anti-God permissiveness. Under Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, which was passed in 1997, 525 people committed suicide. Similar legislation has been passed in Montana and Washington State. Not everyone is cheering our new autonomy, however.
A report on assisted suicide under Oregon’s law found that in 47 percent of the cases, one of the motives in the decision was “concern about being a burden on others.” As Diane Coleman of the disability rights group Not Dead Yet has noted, “Making suicide easy and socially approved for people who . . . feel like burdens on their families, is discrimination against a socially devalued group. Assisted suicide is not a benefit; it’s a threat.”
In other words, a person’s “autonomous decision” to end it all can be influenced (even coerced?) by others. Who knew?
Jean-Paul Sartre, the French philosopher, summarized existentialism by pointing to the literary character Ivan Karamazov, who contended that if there is no God, everything is permissible. While Karamazov was clearly a work of fiction, his pronouncement startlingly caught the tenor of our time. Yes, without God and his moral standards, everything has become not only permissible, but, increasingly, mandatory.
Bork, you see, also warned us about another evil in a society where God is treated as if he did not exist. That evil is the urge to radical egalitarianism, or equality of outcomes. Striving toward this impossible ideal means removing or undercutting the many mediating social institutions that inculcate values and that stand between us and an all-powerful government.
One example is the current push for homosexual rights. If millennia-old tradition and Scripture agree that homosexuality is wrong, no matter. Radical egalitarianism requires that homosexuals be allowed to marry, “just like everybody else.” Those institutions, such as the church, that disagree, are to be ignored or—perhaps one day—put out of business. So-called gay rights, the “right to choose,” and the “right to die” could quickly morph into forms that directly challenge religious liberty.
So with a “right to die with dignity” increasingly assumed in our society, how should Christians respond? David Neff of Christianity Today notes that we won’t get very far if we simply attempt to be salt in the courtroom without also being light in the hospital room. Neff calls for a “revolution in values.”
In many of the Kevorkian cases, assisted suicide was chosen by people with treatable conditions who were bounced from specialist to specialist without coordinated care: people with chronic illnesses who were not given adequate guidance and aid in coping; people whose pain was not taken seriously; people whose mental-health issues were ignored by those who treated their bodies; and in a few cases, people who were simply misdiagnosed. Several patients said Kevorkian was the first doctor who ever listened to them. These people were not driven to Kevorkian because they were sick; they sought him out because they were set adrift, and he was willing to talk to them and offer them a plan.
Because Christians know that God is still with us, we also know that everything is not permissible, no matter what Dr. Death and his acolytes have said. But we won’t get very far by simply saying "no" to our culture’s radical individualism and egalitarianism. We also need to be able to say "yes." We need to say "yes" to human dignity, to virtues long forgotten, to Scripture, and to good, old-fashioned compassion.
The death of Dr. Death seems like a good a time to start.
Stan Guthrie, a Christianity Todayeditor at large, is author of All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Usand coauthor of The Sacrament of Evangelism. Stan blogs at http://stanguthrie.com.
This article posted on June 7, 2011. Photo by Greg Asatrian.