Dr. Jack Kevorkian, Proponent of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia, is Dead at 83. Will the Living be Civil?

I woke up this morning to discover that Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a.k.a. “Dr. Death” had died in Michigan at age 83, apparently due to complications stemming from pneumonia and kidney issues.

Where are you with that information?  What feelings does it evoke in you?

Kevorkian, best known for bringing the cause of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide to the spotlight through his use of a suicide machine, was always a controversial figure in his life.  He was polarizing.  People seemed to either support his cause or vilify him, with very little room for middle ground.

His first, and highly publicized, encounter was with Janet Adkins of Portland, Ore.  She and Kevorkian met in Detroit, where Kevorkian hooked Adkins up to his machine and allowed her to turn on the device, which delivered the drugs that ultimately led to her death.

Dr. Kevorkian’s death will, I’m sure, be a time for people to once again discuss euthanasia and assisted suicide in all sorts of venues — classrooms, dinner tables, and around the water cooler.  People will, most likely, passionately defend one side or the other of the controversial assisted death issue.  And, as so often happens, many on one side will paint folks on the other side as either “murderers” or “closed-minded.”

So, let’s think about this in a broader context.  When we discuss tolerance as a society, what are we discussing?  Are we having a surface conversation about simply “putting up with” thing with which we disagree?  Are we just saying, “Well, I’m not a tattoo person myself, but live and let live,” or “You know?  I really disagree with X or Y religion, but I guess as long as they don’t try to convert me….”  Or, are we having a deeper conversation about allowing beliefs and practices to flourish, even though we may have a visceral reaction to them?

Euthanasia and assisted suicide often fall into that latter category.  It’s an issue that finds passionate support among a sizeable portion of the population.  There are groups that want the right to end their lives as they see fit, and there are folks who want to assist with no legal repercussions.  It’s at this point where a society has to check itself to see just where it comes out on the “tolerance” spectrum.  It’s when we violently adhere to, or disagree with, a certain point of view that we have to decide as individuals just how tolerant and civil we are willing to be.

Nothing can stop a wave that is high enough.  It will crash to shore one way or another.  In other words, movements that grow strong can have tremendous influence, whether we are talking about new religious movements or the push to legalize assisted suicide and euthanasia.  The question we face as a society is how we will deal with that wave when it crashes.  Will we join hands with those with whom we disagree and foster a community of safe standards, dialogue, and unity, or will we continue to argue in the face of the inevitable until we go too far down the road to be civil.

When you remember Dr. Jack Kevorian today, and whatever reaction you have to the important causes of his life and the reality of his death, just remember, you are likely to encounter a conversation with folks who are likely as passionate as you on the other side.  It’s not your relationship to Kevorkian that matters in that moment — it’s your relationship to a living human being.

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