The Reverend Kevin David O’Rourke, O.P., of the Province of St. Albert the Great, passed away peacefully at Rush Hospital in Chicago on March 28, 2012 at the age of 85. Earlier in the day at the hospital, he was telling everyone present in his room that he was “going home” that day.
Fr. O’Rourke was born on March 3, 1927 in Park Ridge, IL. His parents were William Joseph O’Rourke and Winifred Ann Stanton O’Rourke. Fr. O’Rourke was the youngest in the family. He had seven siblings who all preceded him in death: Winifred, Mary, Sr. Mary Winfrida, R.S.M., William, Agnes, Kathleen and Rita.
Fr. O’Rourke was regarded as a leading authority on health care ethics and bioethics, writing several books and publishing over a hundred articles examining such issues as genetic testing, surrogate decision making and physician-assisted suicide. For many years he wrote a column, “Ethical Issues,” published in the quarterly publication of St. Louis University Medical Center in St. Louis, Missouri. His best-known book is Health Care Ethics: A Theological Analysis, written with Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P., and now in its 5th edition.
A 1945 graduate of Fenwick High School in Oak Park, IL, he attended the University of Notre Dame for two years before entering the Dominican Order in 1947. He was ordained a priest in 1954 and received his JCD in 1958.
After teaching canon law and serving as President of Aquinas Institute of Theology, he accepted a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Chicago. When the Catholic Hospital Association (CHA) realized a need to respond to a growing number of inquiries in regard to the ethics of abortion and other ethical issues in health care, they hired Fr. O’Rourke, who eventually became director of Medico-Moral Affairs at CHA.
Fr. O’Rourke was also a Member of the National Advisory Committee for the U.S. Bishops and Consultant to their Committee on Canon Law; Chairman of the Religious Life Committee and of the Committee to Evaluate the Revised Code of Canon Law of the Canon Law Society of America.
He founded and served as Director of the Center for Health Care Ethics at St. Louis from 1979-1999. During this time he was consulted in several high profile cases including that of Nancy Cruzan (1990), a case that made its way to the United States Supreme Court. This landmark case helped clarify the diagnosis of “persistent vegetative state” and established the legal right of patients to refuse all medical treatments including artificial nutrition and hydration.
O’Rourke was a tireless researcher and writer. He excelled in applying classic moral concepts such as the principle of cooperation and the distinction between ordinary and extraordinary care. He held that patients could invoke this traditional distinction to reject even respiration and artificial nutrition and hydration on the basis of a calculation of burdens and benefits relative the patient’s ability to “pursue the purpose of life.” This led to criticism by some who felt that his views were in conflict with Church teaching on the dignity of life
At the time of his death, Fr. O’Rourke was a scholar at the Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics and Health Policy at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago. It would not be an exaggeration to say that he was one of the major voices in Catholic health care ethics in the United States in the 20th century.