03 June 2011

On the Death of Dr. Jack Kevorkian

When I first heard of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, I found a hero.  As an American, I equate freedom with life itself, and I can think of no purer form of freedom than being empowered to end one's own life.  Maybe I say this because I've spent most of my life contemplating this very subject.  Maybe others freak out because they fear death and don't even feel comfortable talking about it unless there's an actual death to force them to think about it.  Whatever the case, I think very favorably of the work that Dr. Kevorkian did.

Hospice care in the United States was directly changed by Dr. Kevorkian.  Before his prosecution forced the issue of elderly death into the national discussion, the majority of aged Americans died at home.  Today, more spend their final days cared for by professionals.  Now, this by itself is not a clear-cut win.  There's something to be said for the comfort of home, and we all know that hospice care is frequently found to be sub-standard.  In fairness to hospice workers, it's a very demoralizing line of work that leads very quickly to burnout and mental/emotional reactions that most people--even in the medical field--don't have to face on a daily basis.  Regardless, I think it's a positive thing that we are no longer banishing the elderly to their bedroom and wait for them to expire.  Now they can at least be in facilities with proper treatments for pain, because we as a society were outraged over the conditions brought to our attention directly by Dr. Kevorkian and we demanded expanded hospice care services.

The argument against Dr. Kevorkian's work, of course, is that all life is sacred and must be preserved however possible.  I reject that philosophy wholeheartedly.  I applauded when I heard that Osama bin Laden had finally been caught and killed, and I do not apologize for that reaction.  I take no pleasure in hearing of abortions, but I'm also not about to tell a rape victim that she's just stuck because it would bother me if she didn't carry to term the product of her violation.  And I believe that those who know that tomorrow will be worse than today should not be guilted into lingering to mollify the squeamishness of those around them.

So here's to you, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, for making a difference.  We can see acts of violence perpetrated in our movies and TV shows, but we cannot stand to be reminded that those acts would have real consequences.  We want our video game victims to fall down and then disappear; we don't want to have to actually see death.  But for a time, you forced a society that lives in constant denial about death to actually spend some time thinking and talking about a subject that we generally shun.


  1. When I saw the title of this post, I knew exactly what you would say. And you did. And I agree with all of it.
    I have felt for a long time that if we are allowed to choose how we live (within the confines of the law, of course) then we should be free to choose how and when we die, if possible and appropriate. I believe this is part of the free will that God has bestowed upon us. I realize that is in direct conflict with the sinful nature of suicide, but I also realize what it is like to not have the hope of a new day when, as you stated, there is no chance it will be better than today. I will say, though, that I feel this way only in terms of terminal illness. Here is where you and I may split hairs. I do not see depression as a terminal, hopeless condition, though I do know better than to try and convince a depressed person of this.
    But when medicine, science and time have failed us, when death is a certainty and it will be longer and more agonizing than could serve any good purpose, I feel one has the divine right to go home. Dr. Kevorkian made that transition peaceful, gentle and less imposing. I hope his passing was just as smooth.

  2. I deliberately omitted any reference to depression in this post because I didn't want to conflate my personal experiences and sense of hopelessness with my views on the work and legacy of Dr. Kevorkian. I should have known I wasn't going to get away with that!

    The relationship of physician-assisted suicide and mental/emotional disorders is a complicated subject. I feel comfortable saying that I do believe that they can be difficult to treat and make life unbearable. At the same time, however, I'm reluctant to endorse the notion that the first time someone is overwhelmed by life that suicide should be an option on the table. It breaks my heart to read about the bullied teens of the last year or so who have resorted to ending their own lives. I'm certain that someone could have--and should have--made a difference in their lives for the better.

    I'm not qualified to pass judgment on anyone who ultimately makes the decision to end their life. That goes far above me in the food chain! I'm only comfortable saying that I am firmly convinced each of us should enjoy the freedom to make that determination for ourselves, and for our decision to be respected and accepted by society at large--though, of course, how it's viewed by loved ones is a whole 'nother matter.