Dr. Kervorkian, whose name was made famous for his advocacy of the right to a reasonable and humane death, has himself died. Imprisoned for multiple years for his role in assisting the suicides of others, Kervorkian was released on parole in 2007 as a result of health concerns. His death was not assisted, and various news sources indicate he died a peaceful and calm death.
A controversial figure, Kervorkian is survived by a substantial and sometimes successful movement for the right to die. Oregon, Washington, and Montana, for example, have laws that resulted from decades-long advocacy for death with dignity. And there are organizations that continue to advocate for rights such as Death with Dignity. Perhaps we are all shaped by his legacy insofar as we have living wills.
The nomenclature of all this matters, of course. Suicide. Assisted suicide. Euthanasia. Murder. Mercy killing.
Like the right-to-life movement, the right-to-death movement has been burdened by a contemporary and historical religiosity. Religious views on suicide vary, though it is often viewed as one of the greatest sins in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Until relatively recently, burial practices for those who committed suicide kept them apart from others who died a more “natural” death.
Religious views on assisted suicide and varieties of euthanasia thus vary as well. And yet their importance for our understanding of the past and present are critical. Among many others, John Donne once contemplated suicide. As a result, he wrote a wonderful book entitled Biathanatos. In it, he indicates that suicide may indeed not be a sin. Others, like influential sociologist Emile Durkheim, came to see suicide as a social fact, associated in a wide variety of ways with religion and religiosity. He wrote of suicides that were altruistic, anomic, and egoistic.
Not all suicides, he argued, were alike. And making sense of suicide was in part making sense of the social order that required (and refused) the act. (For more on religious perspectives on assisted suicide, see this site.) More recently, we have debated the inhumanity of lives or marshaled a fear of rampant unchecked euthanasia of the elderly in our public debates about health care provisions; the right to death is as controversial as the right to life—and just as politicized (think Terri Schiavo). It sits at the very boundary of personal and political that feminists and others have pushed us to re-examine; a boundary that is likewise central to our debates about the separation of church and state.
Whether one agrees with courts that sentenced Kervorkian to prison for murder, or with the laws that required this, much has changed since the Michigan pathologist attached his voice to a social movement. He did not start it, nor will it end with his death. And yet, the death of ‘Dr. Death’ reminds us all of the many ways that facing our mortality requires us to reach for the fullness of our humanity and of the place of mourning in our lives.