Living and Dying: George B. Whatley MD

By George B. Whatley, M.D.


George B. Whatley, M.D.

This article is excerpted from a speech given by Dr. Whatley to the Alabama Freethought Association in October 2001. Dr. Whatley cautions: “The remarks about a soul leaving the body are facetious; some of the audience thought I was being serious.” Readers may wish to check their own state requirements relating to donation of bodies or organs.

At this time, as we begin, I want each of you to imagine that you are about 55 years old and you have just been told that you have a terminal disease and will most likely die within six months. Today we’re going to be talking about living and dying which, as you know, is one continuous process. Historically this process has been governed by some form of priesthood. In our time, the laws governing living and dying have been legislated under the heavy influence of the medical and religious professions.

We recognize that the rules for living and dying vary in different parts of the world, reflecting the traditions, culture, and customs, as well as the mores, of those geographical areas. We, as rational individuals, need to examine and question some of the things we routinely do before and after death.

It is maintained on high authority that we humans are unique in the animal world in our ability to anticipate death. That may be true, who knows? We do know for a fact, do we not, by the same authority that we, and only we, possess souls that project our lives beyond death; we are immortal! In anticipation of death we buy life insurance. That’s good. We also buy a plot of land or a niche in a mausoleum in which to plant or store our dead bodies. We buy expensive caskets lined with comfortable material. That, of course, in our culture, makes our survivors feel good. Would it not be better to conserve the land for other purposes, considering an ever-increasing population, the cutting of more trees and the money spent on accoutrements that benefit the undertaker and could more prudently be left to the survivors or charities?

Once the soul has departed, the body is only a biodegradable mass. Why not donate parts for the living or the entire body for medical training? And finally in disposing of the body, the most practical and inexpensive way would be cremation and return of the ashes to nature in a garden or a body of water. It’s something to think about in breaking with traditional religious practices, something beyond trying to separate church and state.

You know that our slogan “church and state, keep them separate” is a little oxymoronic. The United States and church have existed as Siamese twins for a very long time. And Siamese twins must be separated before they can be kept separate. We don’t send “Joy to the World” Christmas cards. We don’t fast during Ramadan, or feast during “Passover,” or celebrate “Good Friday,” or patronize the Easter Bunny. Another step away from religious tradition in dealing with your demise is to forego the customary fashion of funerals. But you have to plan it ahead of time. If you procrastinate too long, you may find yourself lying in a casket listening to some utterly ridiculous remarks coming out of the mouth of some holy Man of God.

In 1990, the U.S. Congress passed the “Patient Self-Determination Act” (PSDA), and in 1992, Pennsylvania was the 50th state to do likewise. The forms were originally called “living wills;” they are now referred to as “advance directives.” These give you the right to refuse all treatment, diagnostic procedures, food and liquids, including stomach tubes and intravenous fluids. If you die by refusing food and liquids it is not a crime; therefore no autopsy is mandatory and the Anatomical Board of Alabama will accept the donation of your body. These forms are easily obtained, but you must ask for the specific “Alabama Advance Directive.” It is comprised of clear statements of “Yes, I do want” or “No, I don’t want” certain services, and there is space to add additional wishes you would like to be carried out. You will need no help in completing the form but you must have two adults as sane as you are to witness your signature. Be sure your close relatives know what is in it and make several copies.

Now, by federal and state law, when you enter a health-care facility, admitting personnel must ask you whether you have an “advance directive.” If you have one, it will be placed with your records. If you don’t have one–shame on you.

Should you wish to donate some organs, such as eyes or kidneys, you should state it in your “directive” and carry a signed donor card as well as having it on your driver’s license. These organs will be removed immediately after death. Then you are responsible for the burial or cremation of your body. Should you wish to donate your body for the benefit of science, that must be prearranged with the Alabama Anatomical Board at the University of Alabama in Birmingham or South Alabama Medical School in Mobile, Alabama.

Perhaps you know that suicide is a crime punishable by death! The Anatomical Board will not accept your body if you commit suicide other than by starvation and dehydration, because it would require an autopsy which would render the body unsatisfactory for medical studies. The Board will not accept bodies if death has been caused by certain contagious diseases, such as AIDS and tuberculosis. The Alabama Legislature, which created the Anatomical Board, provided no funds for the cost of the services involved, such as embalming, cremation, transportation, and shipping of the cremains. Therefore, the donor is expected to pay these costs, which will probably be slightly less than the cost of direct cremation when the body is not donated. With direct cremation, body organs can be donated. The same services are rendered with direct cremation as when the entire body is donated.

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The most recognized leader in the “right to die” movement in the 1990s was Dr. Jack Kevorkian. The first patient he assisted in dying was Janet Adkins, who was in the terminal stage of Alzheimer’s disease. Prior to his final euthanasia patient on television, he had assisted between 130 and 150 patients in dying. He was arrested four times, tried, and acquitted.

His last case was not one of physician-assisted dying, but one of actual euthanasia. Tom Youk was a 52-year-old man in the terminal stage of Lou Gehrig’s disease. He asked for euthanasia. His mother and a brother, both practicing Catholics, his wife, Melody, and another brother, Terry–his entire family agreed with him. In June of 1996, while videotaping the procedure, Dr. Kevorkian injected the drugs into Tom’s vein and he died peacefully.

Dr. Kevorkian persuaded Mike Wallace to show this tape on CBS’s “60 Minutes” on Nov. 22, 1998, with 60 million people watching. He was arrested, tried and found guilty of second degree murder and was sentenced to 10 to 25 years in a Michigan prison. He will be eligible for parole in 2007, after which he says he will not assist in any more deaths. He has had an appeal in the works since his conviction and has been denied bond up to and including the Michigan Supreme Court. Arguments on his appeal were finally heard by a three-judge panel on September 11, 2001, a date that will live in infamy along with December 7, 1941. The appeal for a new trial was declined.

No one has been allowed to interview him since he has been in prison. Michigan’s policy of no cameras or recording devices in its 39 prisons went into effect the same month that Dr. Kevorkian was incarcerated. Barbara Walters obtained permission for an interview from a county judge, but the state ruled against it.

On September 15, 2000, Dr. Kevorkian wrote a letter of about 600 words to Chief Justice Rehnquist. Here is one of the paragraphs:

“The constitutional court in the predominantly Catholic nation of Columbia in 1997 declared simply and correctly that access to medical euthanasia is the right of the people. The Netherlands is now in the process of formally criminalizing it after two or more decades of having permitted the practice within carefully set guidelines. It is also allowed in Switzerland, Germany, and Uruguay and may soon be legalized in Catholic Belgium and France as well as Japan. One must wonder why the English-speaking countries lag in this humanitarian trend.”

Mike Wallace, in a letter to the editors of Hemlock’s publication “Time Lines,” states that when prisoners are executed with a needle in a vein they receive the same combination of drugs that Dr. Kevorkian injected into Tom Youk. These were:

1. Sodium thiopental, a barbiturate which sedates the person.

2. Pancuronium bromide, a muscle relaxant which collapses the diaphragm and lungs.

3. Potassium chloride, which stops the heart.

The individual is pronounced dead in about seven minutes; cost of the drugs–$86.08.

Do you think you know anything about Dr. Kevorkian? The press has labeled him Dr. Death. Computer wits have put a new verb in the lexicon–“kevork.” If you want to kill a project, an activity, or a discussion you can “kevork” it. You’ll find this in the New Hacker’s Dictionary, third edition.

He was born in Pontiac, Mich., in 1928. His parents were Armenian immigrants who survived the Armenian genocide of 1915 to 1922. He had two sisters, one still living, Mrs. Flora Holtzheimer, who resides in Germany. He speaks several languages, two of which he taught himself in high school during World War II, German and Japanese. He wasn’t sure how that war was going to end. He graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1952. He served as a medical officer in the Korean War.

He has published numerous books, among them two humorous ones titled Glimmericks and Slimmericks and The Demi Diet. More serious ones were: The Story of Dissection; Medical Research and the Death Penalty–which he opposes; one titled Beyond Any Kind of God; and his last book published in 1991 titled Prescription: Medicide–The Goodness of Planned Death.

He is an avid painter; most of his work deals in political and social commentary. He is an amateur musician and composer. He plays the flute, piano, organ, and harpsichord. Bach is his favorite composer. All of his art work, musical instruments, books, compositions, and personal belongings were stolen from a storage locker in California in the 1980s. He resumed painting in 1993, recreating some of his lost works as well.

He spoke before the national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in 1990. In 1994, he received the Humanist Hero Award from the Hawaii Hemlock Society. In 1999, he received the Minnesota Atheist Award at their annual dinner. During his last five and a half months of freedom he lived in the home of Ruth Holmes and her daughter, Sarah. Ruth Holmes is a well-known and often called-upon handwriting expert who has her own company, Pentec, Inc. She assisted Dr. Kevorkian in several of his trials. When Dr. Kevorkian left her home for prison, he gave his Cadillac automobile to Melody Youk, the widow of the man he euthanized.

The Alan Gleitsman Foundation in Malibu, Calif., makes a biennial award to citizen activists of the year. On April 10, 2000, two men received the award. Accepting the award for the imprisoned Dr. Kevorkian was Melody Youk, Tom Youk’s widow, and Tom’s brother, Terry Youk. At the same time these awards were being made at Harvard University, Dr. Kevorkian’s sister, Mrs. Holtzheimer, accepted on his behalf a beautiful sculpture by the artist, Ms. Maya Lin. The Gleitsman award was $50,000, and the state of Michigan promised not to confiscate it.

Mrs. Holtzheimer presented the sculpture for permanent display in the Armenian Library and Museum of America, Inc. in Watertown, Mass. Dr. Kevorkian’s art work also has been on display there. Who was the other man who received the ALA Gleitsman award? It was none other than Bryan Stevenson who, since 1995, has been directing “Equal Justice Initiative” here in Montgomery, Ala., challenging bias against poor people and people of color.

At the awards ceremony, Dr. Kevorkian’s words of thanks and appreciation were read by his attorney at the time, Mr. Mayer Morganroth.

Here is a comment from Andy Rooney of CBS’s “60 Minutes.” He said, “You can dislike Dr. Kevorkian for a lot of reasons but he is not an evil person. He believes too many people are dying long tortured deaths and he wants it to be legal for a doctor to help them out–out of this world.”

The “right to die” movement is worldwide. Religion says your body belongs to God. Governments say your body belongs to the state. Dr. Kevorkian says the Ninth Amendment to the Constitution gives you rights not listed elsewhere, including the control of your own body–it belongs to you.

A longtime Life Member of the Foundation, Dr. Whatley of Alabama has been especially supportive of the Foundation and its Alabama chapter.

Freedom From Religion Foundation