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The Historical Significance of Jack Kevorkian


A high school student writing a paper about the historical significance of Jack Kevorkian recently contacted me. I hadn’t considered that particular aspect of his saga before, and so I took some time answering her. I then made that question the topic of my current column in First Things:

It is too soon to answer what, if any, historical significance Kevorkian will have. I hope none.

If we are a moral society in one hundred years, he will be remembered — if he is remembered at all — as a crass social outlaw, operating at a time of cultural hesitancy, who preyed upon the despairing in pursuit of his own nihilistic ends. But there’s a chance we will not be a moral society.

So, I did my best to be dispassionate:

I think Jack Kevorkian was a symptom — not a cause — of a society that is losing trust in institutions and principles. His success in defying the law for so long was a vote of “no confidence” in the practice of medicine itself and reflected a culture that increasingly extols the atomized self. In other words, we are becoming a solipsistic society: If I want it, that means it is right — so long as I am not hurting you.

We are also becoming a culture that is terrified of suffering and disdains serious limitations. Avoidance of suffering has become a very high cultural priority, sometimes to the point that it takes precedence over preserving life itself. That people can surmount their suffering and adjust to difficult circumstances — and later be glad they are still alive (and this includes the terminally ill) — too often gets lost in the stampede.

Kevorkian understood and exploited these aspects of our culture.

I recount some of the facts that often get lost in the media reporting of the story or that have disappeared down the memory hole, such as his goal of engaging in human vivisection. I conclude:

Many people disagree with my critical assessment and believe that Kevorkian should go down in history as a courageous, if eccentric, pioneer of the putative human right to suicide. As they say, the victors write the history books. The kind of society we leave for our posterity will ultimately determine which view of Kevorkian becomes the reigning historical understanding.

I really hope K goes down badly in history — or better yet, is forgotten altogether. Because if tomorrow’s history books lionize him as a visionary leader of freedom, the culture of the West will be as dead as Kevorkian’s 130 “patients.”

Image: By Photographer Gevorg Gevorgyan (Greg Asatrian.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Cross-posted at Human Exceptionalism.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.