Art to Die For

Well-heeled art patrons wandered through Detroit’s Ariana art gallery, sipping wine and nibbling strawberries. But the exhibit was enough to make most lose their appetites. One painting, titled Coma, showed a bedridden man being dragged through the jaws of a gigantic skull. In another painting, titled Genocide, soldiers hold a bleeding, severed head by the hair. A third painting depicts Santa Claus stomping the life out of the Baby Jesus. What is this, the latest outrage funded by the National Endowment for the Arts? No, it’s an exhibit of paintings by Jack Kevorkian. And you couldn’t have asked for a better illustration of the real Dr. Death. Many Americans have been drawn in by sympathetic media accounts, and view Kevorkian’s suicide machine as a rational and compassionate solution for the sick and suffering. Or they view him as at worst a harmless crank. But in a recent article in the New Republic, Michael Betzold says reporters have kept Kevorkian’s background and true agenda firmly under wraps. For example, Kevorkian was given the nickname "Dr. Death" decades ago—not because he favored assisted suicide, but because he enjoyed photographing patients’ eyes as they lay dying. Kevorkian also campaigned for the legalization of medical experiments on prison inmates. As a young pathologist, he conducted bizarre experiments, such as transfusing blood from corpses into live volunteers. But the most chilling of Kevorkian’s private compulsions is his conviction that doctors alone should make life-and-death decisions. During his murder trials, Kevorkian frequently reassures the public that "the patient always has… absolute autonomy;" that doctors are ethically bound to honor the patient’s decision. But listen to what he said during a 1993 interview. When asked who should determine when someone’s life is no longer worth living, Kevorkian snapped, "That’s up to physicians, and nobody can gainsay what doctors say." In other words, if Kevorkian says it’s time for you to check out, don’t even think of arguing. Even worse, Kevorkian once testified that his goal was to implement "a rational policy of planned death for the entire civilized world." A chilling scenario. Americans have been taken in by Kevorkian’s rhetoric of autonomy—the idea that the patient should decide if he wants to live or die. But this is a classic diversionary tactic. Ever since the great founder of medicine, Hippocrates, doctors have been morally committed to preserving life. The current talk of autonomy is nothing but a ploy to get rid of the traditional ethic in favor of a deadly new one. As bioethicist Nigel Cameron puts it, "Autonomy is a smokescreen for the introduction of a new substantive ethic… [for] sinister new values." Kevorkian exemplifies this ethical sleight of hand. He’s been so dressed up by the media and by his own slick language that we don’t realize what’s really behind his actions. In fact, maybe we ought to be grateful for Kevorkian’s grotesque artwork, because it’s helping to expose the real Jack Kevorkian. As one art lover put it: "I used to respect what [Dr. Kevorkian] did. These paintings changed my mind. He’s a sick person." She added: "How do I know he doesn’t do what he does because he enjoys killing people?" In light of what we now know about Kevorkian’s history, that’s an excellent question.


Chuck Colson



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