Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Dr. Jack Kevorkian Released From Jail, But Continues His Death Mission

On Friday, Dr. Jack Kevorkian was released from prison after serving eight years of a 10 to 25 year sentence for murder by injection of terminally ill patient Thomas Youk. While promising to respect the strict terms of his two year parole that forbid his assistance of other suicides, Dr. Kevorkian has vowed to continue his crusade to legalize the laws that landed him in jail.

“I'm going to work with activist groups trying to get it legalized. And putting my voice in with theirs to legalize it whenever I can. Either through legislators or through courts if possible.”

But national advocates of assisted suicide, who are now focused on a bill on the docket of California's legislature, fear the timing of his release and the doctor's penchant for brash remarks may turn out to be a net loss for their cause. In an interview on Sunday, for example, just two days after his release, he called the government a “tyrant,” the American public “sheep,” and his strongest critics “religious fanatics or nuts.”

While many opponents of assisted suicide have reacted with outrage over his early release and fear that his high profile will catapult legal assisted suicide beyond its current borders, others disagree. They say his bellicose style may undercut the more diplomatic approach taken by advocates of the landmark 1997 “Death with Dignity Act” in Oregon. That successful campaign focused on extreme cases of illness and relied on euphemistic terms like “the right to die,” “compassion,” and “death with dignity,” to tug at the heartstrings of voters.

“Dr. Death” (a nickname Dr. Kevorkian does not reject), on the other hand, wants to show the world what he is doing and why he is doing it. He has allowed himself to be photographed with his “killing machine,” and he video-taped the deaths of more than one of his patients (some of whom were not even physically sick and whom he knew for less than 24 hours), and advertised a “first come, first serve” deal for the kidney of one of the patients whom he helped to commit suicide.

Apparently, he didn't have a change of heart in jail. In an interview that aired on 60 Minutes on Sunday evening, Mike Wallace asked Dr. Kevorkian if he regretted “helping Tom Youk.”

“No, why would I regret that? That's like asking a veterinarian, 'Do you regret helping that person's animal?'”

Mike Wallace rightly followed up the doctor's provocative answer:

“Well, wait a minute. Tom Youk was a man. And it was a compassionate murder, but you murdered him.” (Notice Mr. Wallace's assumption that the murder was true compassion.)

Dr. Kevorkian responded:

“But it was a man whose life didn't measure up anymore. You know, David Hume said it, 'No man ever threw away a life while it was worth keeping.'”

As brash as his words may sound, they are not off-the-cuff. He has had plenty of time to think about his approach. Maybe he feels there is not much to lose. After all, during his long prison stay, no law was passed in any state to advance the assisted suicide agenda. Not even convincing influential members of the media that murdering a suffering patient is an act of compassion has produced the desired effect of national acceptance of assisted suicide.

That's why Dr. Kevorkian wants to take the campaign to another level. The Oregon Law has always been too restrictive for his likes, and as of yet, it hasn't served as a catalyst for advocacy in other states. So why would it be worth defending? It requires a doctor's certification that a patient has a terminal illness that will lead to death within six months. Some of the 130 men and women whom Dr. Kevorkian says he helped to die in the 1990s were not terminally ill; some were disabled and others were just depressed.

His actions, in fact, are coherent with his philosophy. Like David Hume, Dr. Kevorkian believes some lives are not worth keeping. When a life doesn't “measure up” to a person's hopes, or when a subject wants to throw it away for whatever reason, a doctor (just like a veterinarian) should not be restricted by the presence of imminent, natural death or even terminal illness if he decides, with (or in some cases even without) the patient's direct consent, death by injection is in his patient's best interest.

Take this extract from a 1986 edition of Medicine and Law, where Dr. Kevorkian wrote in support of medical experimentation on living human subjects as an example of his view on the value of human life in certain circumstances:

“The so-called Nuremberg Code and all its derivatives completely ignore the extraordinary opportunities for terminal experimentation on humans facing imminent and inevitable death … [including] the extraction of medical benefit from the process of judicial execution from those dying of irremediable illness or trauma [...] Other potential subjects include comatose, brain dead, or totally incapacitated individuals as well as live fetuses in or out of the womb.”

In the same article, Dr. Kevorkian proposed assisted suicide “by proxy,” meaning, in his own words, “the killing by the decision and action of another, of fetuses, infants, minor children, and every human being incapable of giving direct and informed consent.”

Dr. Kevorkian's proposals may seem over the top to many (and it is precisely this impression of extremism that assisted suicide advocates fear), but he is only drawing logical conclusions from a philosophy that all assisted advocates share: the poor “quality” of one's life can obliterate the value of life itself, and sometimes killing a patient is an act of compassion.

I disagree with that premise. As I see it, all human life is invaluable. Society only accepts the veterinarian practice of “mercy killing” because it believes animals are essentially different than human beings. Animals don't give and experience love and affection in the same way as humans. They cannot find meaning and peace in the acceptance of tragedy. They cannot look beyond their present state of suffering with hope for a better future. Simply put, animals are never made better by suffering, while human beings can turn their own suffering or the suffering of others into life-changing moments of personal and spiritual growth.

Nobody should be required to use extraordinary and artificial means to keep a dying person alive. The body tells us when it's time to go. But as we watch the legislative battle in California, it is important to know exactly what the euphemistic terms of “death with dignity,” “the right to die,” and “compassion” really mean. They assume the value of human life depends on its “quality” and that doctors should be involved in deciding when life should end.

It looks like Dr. Kevorkian's straight talk may help us see through the fog.


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