Assisted Suicide

Evaluating Dr. Kevorkian’s contribution to the right-to-die movement in America

By Derek Humphry
1 June 2007

The release of Dr Jack Kevorkian is welcome news. He has suffered the eight years of imprisonment with calm and fortitude and deserves a peaceful retirement.

But the thought he might have any influence on further developments does not make any sense. And while we are currently among the media circus surrounding his release, it is time to look back at what went on and what the future holds.

Kevorkian was never a part of the organized right-to-die movement, and publicly scoffed at its efforts to change the law. He was a lone ranger on this issue.

The general public is split about the worth of his contribution to achieving so-called ‘death with dignity’ for the terminally ill.

Many in the health professions were and are skeptical about Kevorkian’s style of assisted deaths back in the 1990s. Patients flying into Michigan one day, and being found dead the next, is not their idea of caring, cautious medical practice.

Political activists in the right-to-die movement in the 1990s dreaded the thought that Kevorkian might show up during their campaigns because he was such a negative figure in the opinion polls.

Claims that he launched the right-to-die movement, and was responsible for the introduction of ‘Living Wills’ are inaccurate. The Hemlock Society was already ten years old with 20,000 members before Kevorkian surfaced publicly in 1990. California passed the first Living Will law in 1976.

There is no further need for Dr. Kevorkian’s services. (His parole conditions prohibit it anyway.) The right-to-die movement has changed considerably in the last ten years. There are now two national organizations, Compassion and Choices and the Final Exit Network, which will find ways to help suffering dying people to a speedy and peaceful -- and legal -- end.

Certainly Dr. Kevorkian is to be thanked for helping some 130 people to die who obviously wanted his aid in doing so. But he would not move out of his local county therefore those who could not travel to him went on suffering. Also, if he had not challenged the law enforcement on television to prosecute him then he could have continued to help people instead of languishing in jail.

He was convicted of second degree murder of Thomas Youk, who was asking to die, but Kevorkian seemed to think he could overturn the centuries-old legal maxim in Anglo-American law that a person cannot ask to be killed. I would like to see a new provision in the homicide laws that allows (which it sternly does not now) a defendant to plead that it was a merciful killing, upon request. Then let the jury decide.

There have been – and are -- other retired doctors in America who will travel to different places to help dying people who are in great suffering to escape from their pain-wracked bodies. (Don’t ask me to name them; they are adverse to publicity.)

Kevorkian assiduously courted publicity as his way to shock his medical profession into seeking a change in the law. The media loved the sight of a doctor with a suicide machine killing patients upon request.

Around the same time, shrewd people in Oregon planned to change the law forbidding assisting death in that state. In 1994, with a citizens’ vote, they succeeded in putting the Death With Dignity Act on the statute book, and fought all the way to the US Supreme Court to successfully defend it. Some 30 dying people in Oregon take advantage of this law every year.

Thus I thank Dr. Kevorkian for the huge public interest he aroused in the 1990s in this issue, and he will go down in history as a major catalyst for reform via the media’s fascination.

In the coming years, as a reaction to the Bush Administration’s abuse of civil liberties, there will be a more welcome climate for law reform in the area of death and dying. The Oregon model marks the way forward to this ultimate civil liberty – the right to die in a manner of one’s own choosing.

Derek Humphry
June 1, 2007

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