05 June 2011

Jack Kevorkian meant well

Dr. Jack Kevorkian passed away on June 3. He died the old-fashioned way - in a Michigan hospital bed while suffering from pulmonary thrombosis. Kevorkian, also known as "Dr. Death", was famous as a proponent and provider of physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill.

At the beginning, Michigan had no law against assisted suicide. Kevorkian eventually went to prison when he crossed the line and gave a lethal injection to a man suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease. He videotaped the event and provided the video to the CBS program "60 Minutes". Unlike Kevorkian's other patients, the Lou Gehrig's sufferer was unable to administer the lethal drug to himself. Kevorkian was subsequently convicted of second-degree murder. And the Michigan legislature proceeded to outlaw assisted suicide.

Some people call Kevorkian a murderer and a monster. I call him compassionate. He admirably wanted to relieve the suffering of the terminally ill. He just did so with a bit too much drama. Fortunately, his legacy lives on with a number of right-to-die organizations around the world that are fighting for what I see as the final human right: the right to choose a quick and dignified death over a painful, lingering one.

As a result of the work of these organizations, physician-assisted suicide is now available for terminally ill patients in Oregon, Washington, and Montana, as well as a small handful of European nations. Everywhere else, the terminally ill are forced to endure sometimes horrific pain at the end of life, or end their misery with a plastic bag, a noose, or other undignified means. And those sad, desperate acts will continue as long as so-called "pro-life" factions keep fighting attempts to widen the acceptance of physician-assisted suicide and provide more people with the power to choose a good death over a horrible, slow, painful one.

This is not euthanasia, where some people worry that the disabled will be killed to get them out of the way. Where physician-assisted suicide is legal, the patient must demonstrate a rational and clear-headed desire to die, and must pass medical screenings to prove that they are terminally ill.

Sometimes those on the "pro-life" side point to hospice care as an alternative that would provide palliative care to relieve suffering at the end of life. But the fact remains that modern medical science cannot yet provide adequate pain control for all dying patients, even by the best hospice organizations.

While physicians are sworn to do no harm, is it not harmful to force a dying patient to suffer a slow, lingering death against his or her will, perhaps kept alive artificially with respirators and feeding tubes?

When a pet becomes ill to the point where it is near death and suffering uncontrollably, a veterinarian will not think twice before recommending that the pet be euthanized, to put the animal out of its misery.

So why do we treat our dying pets with more mercy than we treat our dying people?

Dr. Kevorkian saw this double standard and chose to fight it. For that I admire him. May he now rest in peace.

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