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.