COMMENTARY | Jack Kevorkian rose to national prominence in the 1990s as an advocate of using assisted suicide to help terminally ill patients end their lives. On Friday, the Michigan doctor died at the age of 83 from a pulmonary embolism, according to CBS/AP/WWJ. Kevorkian had been hospitalized for nearly two weeks with kidney and respiratory problems prior to his death.
Kevorkian earned the nickname Dr. Death for his role in assisting terminally ill patients in their wishes to commit suicide through the use of a homemade suicide machine. He stirred controversy concerning what role the medical profession should play in relieving the suffering of patients stricken with terminal diseases. From 1990 until he was finally sent to prison in 1999, Kevorkian emerged as a national advocate for making it possible to let terminally ill patients choose when they die rather than letting the disease take its natural course.
I admit when I first learned about Kevorkian in high school, I did not agree with his methods. My philosophy at that time was that it was unethical for him to help patients take their lives. I thought it was reckless and dangerous and could open a can of worms where people would use assisted suicide as the easy way out rather than battling their disease and seeing if they could beat it.
My perspective changed when I witnessed my own mother battle two rare forms of cancer simultaneously for two years before finally dying in November 2003. I saw my mom’s final days and cannot shake the image of her being completely bed ridden and having lost all motor function. Her speech was slurred and her expression was one of continual pain. After seeing that, I’m not convinced we can be quick to condemn someone such as Kevorkian, who simply sought to end similar episodes of agony in his patients.
There is no simple answer when it comes to determining whether Kevorkian was right or wrong in his actions and his philosophy. It is easy to call him a monster and label his actions dangerous, until you or someone close to you is suddenly faced with a disease that robs them of the ability to even take care of themselves and puts them through prolonged suffering long before their actual deaths.
One positive thing that has come out of Kevorkian’s efforts is that doctors and hospitals are more concerned these days with treating terminally ill patients through hospice care and heightened doses of medication. I only hope that the next advancement will be a cure for all of these diseases so the debate on assisted suicide will be rendered moot.
“Dr. Jack Kevorkian dead at 83,” CBS News, June 3, 2011.