I lived in Michigan in 1991 when the State of Michigan revoked Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s medical license for performing doctor-assisted suicides of terminally ill patients. “Dr. Death,” the headlines screamed, although Kevorkian had never been successfully prosecuted for murder for assisting patients commit suicide. He was tried and acquitted many times, and Kevorkian has always maintained that he practiced voluntary euthanasia: The patients allegedly took the final action that caused their deaths; Kevorkian merely assisted by providing the medications, the IVs and the machine.
After Kevorkian’s license was revoked, he no longer had access to medications and IVs, so he provided patients with a gas mask fed by a container of carbon monoxide. Throughout the years, Kevorkian facilitated more than 130 assisted suicides of terminally ill patients.
In September 1998, Kevorkian made a terrible mistake: He allowed “60 Minutes” to air a videotape of the assisted suicide of Thomas Yourk. The result was that Kevorkian was charged with and convicted of second-degree homicide in Yourk’s death, and he was imprisoned in 1999 at the age of 71.
On June 1, 2007, Kevorkian, now 79, was released from prison. He has stated that he will not resume his practice of facilitating suicides. He is ill with hepatitis, which he contracted from blood transfusions when he served in the Vietnam War, and his doctors predict he has a year to live. What a sad end for such a great man.
Call him Dr. Death all you want — the man provided a service to terminally ill patients who were dying slow, painful deaths. He gave them the option of death with dignity. He enabled patients to decide when they’d had enough pain, enough side effects from treatments, enough quantity of life without quality of life. But despite the dignity Kevorkian gave his patients, he has continually been vilified by the media and Christians.
If you don’t want doctor-assisted suicide, then don’t do it. But every human being deserves the option, the right to die with dignity. We deserve the right to end the pain from chemotherapy and cancer, terminal AIDS infections, and other severe conditions. People should not be forced to waste and wither away until their hearts finally stop. That’s just cruel.
It’s a cruelty that we won’t even allow our pets to suffer. When a dog, cat, horse or other animal is suffering and dying, we take it to the vet to euthanize it. We don’t want our pets to be in pain. We feel selfish and guilty keeping a suffering animal alive to postpone our own grief from losing them.
We offer this compassion to our pets, yet we refuse it to ourselves. We do not feel such compassion for other human beings. Currently, Oregon is the only state in the nation that allows doctor-assisted suicide for terminally ill people. In the other 49 states, you must suffer in a hospital bed until you finally die.
I understand that some people reject suicide because it’s against their religious beliefs. Fine — those people are free to believe in their superstitions and suffer like they believe their religious figures did. But the rational people should have the right to decide when we’ve had enough. And we should be able to have that decision carried out with a doctor’s assistance.
Jack Kevorkian should never have served a day in prison. He didn’t commit a crime. He helped people die when they were ready to die, when they were tired of the pain and hospitals. And most importantly, he enabled them to die with dignity.