The Gleitsman Foundation is Wrong that Kevorkian Stands for Social Justice
by Steven J. Taylor, Ph.D., Center on Human Policy, Syracuse University
It was with deep dismay that the Center on Human Policy learned that Dr. Jack Kevorkian was chosen to receive the Gleitsman Foundation Citizen Activist Award. Kevorkian was honored in absentia at a ceremony on April 10, 2000, along with co-recipient Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and opponent of the death penalty. Kevorkian and Stevenson shared the $100,000 prize awarded to those “who have challenged social injustice in the United States.”
In a press release announcing the award, Foundation president Alan L. Gleitsman had glowing praise for Kevorkian: “Throughout his career, Dr. Kevorkian has been a selfless believer in death with dignity and has sacrificed his medical license and now his own freedom toward that cause.” Kevorkian, according to the Gleitsman Foundation, has publicly acknowledged helping at least 130 people to die by assisted suicide.
Just as shocking and disturbing as the presentation of this award is that it was associated with the names of persons known for their social activism. “Those serving on its Board of Judges,” stated the Gleitsman Foundation’s press release, “are Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and psychiatrist Dr. Robert Coles, actor and environmentalist Ted Danson, civil rights attorney Morris Dees, Jr., children’s advocate Marian Wright Edelman, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) founder Candace Lightner, political activist and philanthropist Stanley K. Sheinbaum and feminist Gloria Steinem.” (Robert Coles subsequently stated that he opposed the selection of Kevorkian; Candace Lightner has indicated that she did not support Kevorkian; and Morris Dees resigned from the Gleitsman Board of Judges on April 17.)
Physician-assisted suicide raises profound moral and ethical questions. Some people take the position that persons who are terminally ill and suffering from unbearable pain should be able to receive assistance from physicians to hasten their deaths and to “die with dignity.” Others argue—persuasively in the Center on Human Policy’s opinion—that it is never moral to take the life of another human being, that physicians must always act as healers—never as killers, and that humanistic and medical means exist to alleviate the pain associated with terminal illnesses.
The moral and ethical questions surrounding physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill force us to look into our own hearts, or souls, and to contemplate the mortality of ourselves and our loved ones. As important as these questions are, they have nothing to do with the outrage in the disability community over the selection of Kevorkian for a social justice award.
Out of Kevorkian’s more than 130 victims, a minority had terminal illnesses; most were people with disabilities who were not terminally ill. According to a review of Kevorkian’s victims by the Detroit Free Press in 1997, 60% did not have terminal conditions.
Some of Kevorkian’s victims had chronic conditions or disabilities such as muscular dystrophy (ALS or “Lou Gehrig’s disease”), multiple sclerosis, quadriplegia, emphysema, cognitive disabilities, or other long-term conditions. The Detroit Free Press profiled the victims. Read some of the stories, in the newspaper’s words.
- Esther Cohan, 46. A single former secretary, Cohan was on disability due to multiple sclerosis.
- Ruth Neuman, 69. A retired bus driver described as a “strong-willed woman,” Neuman was diabetic, overweight and partially paralyzed by stroke.
- Erika Garcellano, 60. A divorced nursing home aide who escaped war-ravaged Europe as a child. . .Garcellano had ALS. She had entered a nursing home a few months before her death.
- Linda Henslee, 48. A data communications manager for Georgia Pacific, Henslee was an outspoken advocate of right-to-die legislation. She wrote her own obituary, saying, “I do things my way–always have.” Henslee had multiple sclerosis.
- Nicholas Loving, 27. A student, Loving was the youngest person to obtain Kevorkian’s assistance with suicide. He suffered from ALS…He died listening to Pink Floyd and holding the hand of his mother, who has since become a crusader to legalize assisted suicide in Arizona.
- Bette Lou Hamilton, 67. Hamilton was disabled by a spinal disorder and had little use of her hands as a result of a botched surgery in the 1950s, but she prided herself on being able to live independently in a condominium. She contacted Kevorkian as her condition deteriorated to a point where she was facing admission to a nursing home.
- Thomas Hyde, 30. A divorced landscaper and carpenter, Hyde began talking about suicide after he was diagnosed in August 1992 with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
- Austin Bastable, 53. A toolmaker, Bastable was disabled by multiple sclerosis and had announced on the Internet his intention to die. He was married with two children.
- Wallace Spolar, 69. A retired teacher, Spolar was said to be frustrated that multiple sclerosis and a bad heart had relegated him to getting around in a wheelchair. “His mind worked, his body didn’t,” a friend said.
- Nancy DeSoto, 55. A homemaker and retired florist, DeSoto had a rapidly advancing case of ALS and had spent nearly $40,000 on medical care. She arranged a date with Kevorkian to follow a daughter’s wedding and honeymoon.
- Patricia Smith, 40. A former nurse on disability because of multiple sclerosis, Smith left a 17-year-old daughter behind in Missouri when she came to Michigan to die. She was a Baptist who contacted Kevorkian only after her minister said killing herself would not bar her from entering heaven.
- Pat DiGangi, 66. A college history professor, DiGangi was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1981 and by 1987 needed a wheelchair to get around. He talked of suicide for about two years but didn’t arrange to come to Michigan to see Kevorkian until he became incontinent. His wife said DiGangi’s great fear was “to live for a long time and keep getting worse.”
- Marcella Lawrence, 67. Lawrence suffered from heart disease, emphysema and arthritis but was not terminally ill.
- Sherry Ann Miller, 44. A former clerical worker on disability, she had multiple sclerosis and had moved back in with her parents because she could not take care of herself. . .Divorced, she left behind two young children who lived with their father.
- Janet Elaine Adkins, 54. A former college instructor on disability, she decided to commit suicide the day she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Kevorkian agreed to help without ever speaking to her, only her husband.
- Elaine Goldbaum, 47. A divorced mother who sold jewelry until her health forced her to quit in 1988, Goldbaum suffered from multiple sclerosis and required round-the-clock nursing care.
- Hugh Gale, 70. A merchant seaman and then a security guard until emphysema forced him to quit in 1985, Gale’s wife overheard him asking God to “let me go” in 1991. Gale died of carbon monoxide poisoning at his home. The death became controversial when Kevorkian critics going through trash found papers indicating Gale had twice during the procedure changed his mind about dying.
ll other Kevorkian victims had histories of depression or alcohol or drug use, and, in some cases, had no discernible physical illnesses or conditions.
- Rebecca Badger, 39. A single mother of two, Badger had a history of drug and alcohol abuse, and psychiatric and emotional problems. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis but an autopsy found no sign of the disease.
- Lisa Lansing, 42. A single medical malpractice attorney, she complained for more than a decade of pain in her digestive system, although doctors in New Jersey could never determine that she had a medical problem. One physician said he refused to treat Lansing because she was interested mainly in obtaining prescription painkillers.
- Marjorie Lee Wantz, 58. A former elementary school teaching assistant on disability, she had unexplained and untreatable vaginal pain. Wantz had a long history of depression and other psychiatric problems…An autopsy found nothing that could have caused the pain Wantz described. Wantz was married.
- Judith Curren, 42. A registered nurse who had not worked in 10 years, Curren suffered from a muscle disorder, depression and chronic fatigue syndrome. She complained of physical abuse by her husband, a psychiatrist. Others corroborated his story that he had fought to prevent her suicide. The couple was deeply in debt. Curren was also overweight and had been bedridden for up to two weeks at a time.
Those of us involved in the disability rights movement read these stories and weep. For each and every victim who might have chosen death in desperation, we know someone with the same disability who is not only leading a fulfilling life, but is contributing to society as well. We also know that people with disabilities are devalued, pitied, and discriminated against in this society and that some may accept societal attitudes that portray disability as “a fate worse than death.” Further, as the histories of some of Kevorkian’s victims suggest, we know that many people with disabilities are unable to obtain adequate personal assistance and care to remain in their homes and communities and are forced into nursing homes, simply because no options exist.
The role—and the responsibility—of anyone committed to social justice is not to condone and valorize the killing of people under the guise of “death with dignity”; it is to work for changes in the society in which all people can “live with dignity.”
Kevorkian’s involvement in assisting in the suicide of non-terminally ill persons with disabilities was not something that he attempted to hide. A 1990 ad in a Detroit newspaper published three months before his first assisted suicide read:
“Applications are being accepted. Oppressed by a fatal disease, a severe handicap, a crippling deformity? Write Box 261, Royal Oak, Mich. 48068-0261. Show him proper compelling medical evidence that you should die, and Dr. Jack Kevorkian will help you kill yourself, free of charge.”
Kevorkian’s own statements justify the deaths of people with disabilities or chronic illnesses based on presumed societal benefits. In a 1990 written statement submitted in court, Kevorkian wrote, “[T]he voluntary self-elimination of individual and mortally diseased or crippled lives taken collectively can only enhance the preservation of public health and welfare.”
Kevorkian not only sought to justify physician assisted suicide on non-terminally ill persons, but actively promoted a medical experimentation program on people with physical disabilities, elderly people with cognitive disabilities, nondisabled suicidal persons, and newborns with severe disabilities. In a 1988 journal article, he described one such experiment that could be performed in his proposed death factory or “obitorium”:
“A full-term infant born with severe spina bifida, paraplegia, and hydrocephalus is transferred, once proper consent and authorization have been obtained, to an obitorium for research hitherto conducted on rats. . .the abdominal cavity is opened, and the intact stomach, small intestine, and liver are removed separately for preservation and subsequent processing for chemical analysis. Meanwhile the infant’s heart and lungs are removed for transplantation elsewhere.”
Social justice? Death with dignity? Human rights, civil rights, children’s rights?
Can it possibly be true that the Gleitsman Foundation was unaware of the true nature of Kevorkian’s actions and beliefs?
The selection of Kevorkian for a Gleitsman Foundation award is a deep affront to all persons with disabilities—and to all human beings–and a dishonor to past and present recipients of this award.
In February, 1998, after these profiles were published, Kevorkian assisted in the suicide of Roosevelt Dawson, a 21-year-old with quadripelgia.
For more information:
- People with Disabilities are Entitled to Dignity and Social Justice: A Statement in Opposition to Honoring Dr. Jack Kevorkian
- Letter of Protest to Alan Gleitsman on the Award to Jack Kevorkian
- Not Dead Yet, a national activist organization which opposes the legalization of physician-assisted suicide and places emphasis on the value of life.