The Good, The Bad And The Morbid: Dr. Kevorkian’s Mixed-Blessing Legacy

Posted: June 6, 2011 in Editorial

Dr. Jack Kevorkian died, unassisted, last Friday at the age of 83, following complications from pneumonia and kidney problems. Though he managed to keep out of the headlines for the final decade of his life, anyone that lived through the 90s undoubtedly remembers ‘Dr Death’ and his crusade to legalize euthanasia for patients suffering from terminal illnesses. Kevorkian ‘helped’ 130 patients die using his infamous ‘death machine’ —  a hand-built contraption that fed poisonous substances into their bodies using either an IV or a gas-mask. Beginning in 1999, he spent  more than eight years in prison for second-degree manslaughter — and was only paroled after his health began to fail and he promised to never assist another suicide again. He stayed true to his word, even in the case of his own passing.

To say Kevorkian’s position was controversial is a gross understatement. The topic of assisted suicide is a little underplayed nowadays, but 20 years ago it spawned just as much debate as abortion or the death penalty does currently. This man singlehandedly brought the issue to the forefront of American social politics — and inspired laws around the country that expressly prohibited the work he pioneered. As a result, the neo-conservative contingent of the 1990s vilified him as a murderer and a monster. He had his backers — many of them fellow physicians — but not nearly enough to save him from the morbid eponym that came to define his career in medicine.

If anything, Kevorkian’s rise to fame showcased the ludicrous consideration given to suicide in our country. “Dying is not a crime,” he claimed all too often — perhaps forgetting that, in the United States, there is one form that is highly illegal. How weird it is, though, that only those who are unsuccessful at committing suicide are prosecuted — while those who actually perpetrate the crime are allowed to go free (in a manner of speaking). Certainly we should all have the ultimate say when and how our own existence comes to a close, but alas — the legislative branch of the US government has forbade us from being too proactive about it. Kevorkian’s work was a direct attack on this traditional way of thinking — traditional in the sense that it is deeply entrenched in Catholicism. Well, maybe the world wasn’t ready for Dr. Death in the 90s — but we’ve certainly learned a lot throughout the past two decades, and three states (Washington, Oregon and Montana) have even passed laws that permit certain forms of assisted suicide. Yesterday’s cardinal sin is today’s standard — though Kevorkian’s policy is far from accepted in much of our nation (let alone the rest of the world).

In recent years, the doctor made some interesting statements about his trade — words that revealed a character of vast complexity. During an interview with Anderson Cooper last year, he was asked how it felt to take a human life. “I didn’t do it to end a life,” he said. “I did it to end the suffering the patient’s going through. The patient’s obviously suffering – what’s a doctor supposed to do, turn his back?” That same year, he went a step further with Sanjay Gupta. “What difference does it make if someone’s terminal?” he inquired. “We are all terminal.” The implication here was that illness did not need to be present in order to justify the taking of one’s own life — mere suffering was perfectly sufficient.

Yet, for all the pain this doctor eased, was he right? Even in cases of debilitating sickness, should suicide be the only option? I’ve never been dying — and I doubt most of you ever have, either — so it’s a hard concept to gauge. At the very least, there should be a number of options available to terminal patients — assisted death being the last resort. Kevorkian was never shy about his preoccupation with death, and it may have been an inherent quality. After all, his parents were Armenian immigrants who fled to America during the 1915 genocide in their homeland. It’s quite possible his childhood was imbued with a sense of pragmatic curiosity toward the afterlife — and this detachment might have enabled him to unfairly influence others at their most vulnerable. Certainly, if one wishes to end their own life, their counsel on the matter ought to assign grave importance to the finality of death. Having never met Kevorkian, it’s hard to tell exactly where he stood — but his side careers as a painter of corpses and composer of macabre instrumental jazz tunes indicate that death was not just his profession, but something of a hobby as well.

Well, now Dr. Death has met his own end and, once again, brought this issue to the table. I’m not a religious man, but admittedly — I am a little curious about what occurs at the end of our lives. We’ll never know what truly awaits us until our time arrives, and when it does — I, for one, would like to hope that I go out on my own terms. I’d also like to think I won’t need any assistance, but we’ll see what the coming years have in store for me. In the worst case scenario, though, I’ll be able to rely on a physician to help me take my journey into the great beyond — and for that, I (and we all) have Kevorkian to thank.

  1. For all his controvery, I’m really tremendously grateful for the work and sacrafices Kevorkian made that resulted in assisted suicide being legal in a few states. While I do agree that assisted suicide should be a last result, and one only available for terminal patients, I very adamantly believe it should be a legal option for these patients. As you quote Kevorkian saying in that interview, it’s about suffering. Many terminal patients in their last several months suffer horribly and lose any and all dignity they might have once had. I think they have the right to chose not to end their time on earth that way. And again, it’s their choice–they have to begin the process of requesting the medications. Without Kevorkian, that wouldn’t be a choice they could make at all.

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