Dr. Death a misunderstood agent of dignity

by Jim Longworth

In a 1996 “60 Minutes” interview, Andy Rooney mentioned to Dr. Jack Kevorkian that in the Eskimo culture, infirm elderly people used to be set out on ice floats to wait for death. Kevorkian called that practice “brutal.” He also applied that same term to many US hospitals when describing treatment of coma patients and others who literally starve to death. Kevorkian abhors that kind of pain and suffering, and it’s one reason why, in 1989, he developed a suicide machine designed to help patients enter another life rather than continue to suffer through this one.

Once the media got wind of the machine, they dubbed Kevorkian “Dr. Death.” I always took offense at that tabloid moniker and felt that it unfairly characterized someone who dedicated his life to helping others.

At any rate, for 10 years the avowed atheist orchestrated 130 assisted suicides, and came under fire for his blasphemous disregard for life.

But his pioneering approach initiated important dialogue in this country, and even prompted the state of Oregon to pass a Death With Dignity law in 1994.

Then, in 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that people who want to kill themselves, but are physically unable to do so, have no Constitutional right to end their life. Even so, more than 300 people chose to end their life in Oregon via lethal prescription, and Kevorkian continued to defy crusading prosecutors.

In 1999, though, Kevorkian went from activist to martyr when he videotaped an assisted suicide, then mailed the tape to “60 Minutes,” forcing a showdown with the judicial system. This time he lost, and was given a sentence of 10 to 25 years in prison. Last week, after serving eight years behind bars, Kevorkian was released. Ironically his parole coincided with a vote in the California legislature to enact a Compassionate Choices Act similar to that of Oregon.

There’s no definitive data on how many people want to kill themselves on any given day. According to Wikipedia approximately 1 million people worldwide commit suicide each year. It is also reported that, here in America, suicides outpace homicides by a three-to-two margin. But no matter how you extrapolate those figures, the fact remains that a significant number of people would like to die without prolonged suffering.

Of course, the argument can be made that hospice addresses that desire by offering pain management in a comfortable, caring environment. But hospice only serves a specific patient population – generally those who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness expected to claim their lives within six months. That, no doubt, leaves hundreds of thousands of people who are stranded in suffering and are unable to humanely end it.

And that’s why Kevorkian and the voters of Oregon are ahead of the curve on the issue of assisted suicide.

Jack Kevorkian never persuaded or forced his patients to let him help them. He never chased after suicide candidates. He simply provided a compassionate service that no one else had the courage to offer.

It is easy to paint Kevorkian as a mad doctor or grim reaper, but historically, most pioneers in the field of medicine have been dismissed by their contemporaries at one time or another.

That happened to Kevorkian as far back as 1958, and it had nothing to do with suicide per se. That was the year he first proposed that death row inmates be euthanized with dignity in such a way so that bodily organs could be harvested to the benefit of others. Today, nearly 50 years later, inhumane executions are being challenged, and organ donation is considered to be a highly moral and unselfish act.

The terms of Kevorkian’s probation bar him from having contact with anyone who might be a candidate for assisted suicide, but somehow I doubt that he will be dissuaded from helping those in pain. To do otherwise would be out of character for this rebel with a cause. And should he become a repeat offender, Kevorkian, at age 79, would never survive another prison term. But whether he stays in or out of the criminal justice system, the sad thing is that when Kevorkian’s health fails him, and should he choose suicide, there probably won’t be anyone qualified to assist him in dying. In that regard his quest has failed, at least in the short term. By now you would think that medical schools throughout the country would be offering instruction and certification to interns wanting to pursue a career in assisted suicide. They will eventually, but not in Jack’s lifetime.

The man called Dr. Death is, in truth, Dr. Dignity. He is a man who has spent his life fighting brutality by helping to end suffering for hundreds of grateful patients.

I only hope that when my time comes, I have the option of receiving help from someone as compassionate as Jack Kevorkian, rather than being set afloat by politicians and doctors who can’t see the afterlife for the trees.

Jim Longworth is host of “Triad Today,” which can be seen Friday mornings at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7), and Sunday nights at 10 p.m. on MY48 (cable channel 15).