After eight years in prison for assisting in the suicides of terminally ill patients, Jack “Dr. Death” Kevorkian was freed last Friday. Like Monica Lewinsky and OJ Simpson, Kevorkian’s notoriety instantly made him fodder for talk show monologues back in the late 90s. His name is still part of American popular culture and may always be synonymous with suicide.
But where those other names made distinctly bad choices (of differing degrees), Dr. Jack had chosen to fulfill one of the primary roles of a doctor – to end suffering – in a very unconventional and, for some, unacceptable way. He created a “suicide machine” that delivered to terminal patients a drug cocktail that would end their lives. These were people who were not only going to die regardless, but who were going to suffer right up until the end. Also, and this is important, they were still of sound enough mind to make their own decisions.
The courts, however, considered this second-degree murder, and sentenced Kevorkian to prison.
The showing of a Kevorkian patient's suicide video on 60 Minutes was probably the final straw for him. I didn't watch, as I found the idea too disturbing. I think it's fair to say, not to make light of a serious subject, that for myself and many Americans, real suicide remains "not ready for primetime." But while watching is one thing, supporting someone else's right to do it is yet another.
When I think of euthanasia I think: How many times have you or someone you care about said (possibly while watching a dramatic TV show or movie) “If I ever end up as a vegetable with no hope like that, I want the plug pulled?” Well that can be done legally, though, like doctor-assisted suicide, it's a form of euthanasia. In Kevorkian’s case the patients may have still been walking and talking, but they were also suffering greatly.
We humans have in our hearts compassion for suffering, and sometimes we make a tough decision to end that suffering. We do this when we reluctantly put a sick, old canine friend down. I know, that’s an animal, but the idea is much the same: Someone/thing I love is suffering, and I don’t want them to suffer any longer. How many people out there sincerely view pets as members of their family? Lots.
In the case of Kevorkian's patients, who better to make a decision about ending suffering than those directly affected by it?
There are many arguments against patient-elected, doctor-assisted suicide as well as "pulling the plug" on the comatose. The main one seems to be honoring the sanctity of human life – and that’s certainly not something to take lightly. But when death is certain, and only pain left before it, who are any of us to tell someone else “no?” And when people are “alive” simply because some instruments plugged into them keep beeping and blinking for years on end, isn’t that really just the illusion of life?
Except for Oregon (I think), no state allows doctor-assisted suicides. That’s yet another reality that’s out of step with public sentiment. A majority of Americans support stem cell research, and Congress has just passed yet another bill in support of it, but President Bush is planning to veto it again.
As for Kevorkian, he has promised not to break the law anymore (hey, at his age, he can’t really afford more prison time), but also plans to continue to push for the legalization of doctor-assisted suicide. I wish him luck, and I hope he lives to be 100.