FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

The Death of Dr. Death

The writer and Gaullist Minister Andr? Malraux observed that, during his life, children were no longer taken to graves and taught the brevity of human life.  Death, to put it simply, was being banished by citizens of western society.  The longer one lived, the less inclined one was to consider the implications of mortality.  Today, signs of aging are hidden cosmetically; the aged are banished to nursing homes at a moment’s notice to be cared for in padded incarceration.

A man who did not fear talking about death, and the painful demise of a body in its twilight years, was Michigan-born pathologist Dr. Jack Kevorkian.  Allowing competent, informed adults to make a choice about death was Kevorkian’s platform from the start. But he raised the matter of human suffering to a public in a manner that often obscured his cause. He was no public relations genius, showing an astonishing degree of tactlessness.

He was infamous for driving around the United States in his Volkswagen van, assisting people to end their lives with a somewhat sinister death machine using carbon monoxide.  In 1990, he reached notoriety when his machine was adapted to inject a lethal cocktail of drugs into an Alzheimer’s patient.  In 1998, Kevorkian took matters to yet another level, broadcasting the assisted suicide of Thomas Youk on CBS’ 60 Minutes.

Another feature of his work that won him few friends was the way he disposed of his deceased clients, whom he often abandoned in the emergency rooms of hospitals or motels. As Portland attorney Eli Stutsman, the lead drafter of assisted suicide laws in Oregon and Washington recalled, ‘We’d see his work, his name, his image associated with us, and it was something that we always had to work to explain and put in context’ (Associated Press, Jun 5).

For all of Kevorkian’s crude antics, the balance sheet in terms of recognizing and allowing patients a choice to end death turned out in his favour.  What was curious was how Kevorkian himself was portrayed as a symptom of a troubled society.  In the hot house of denial regarding problems posed by terminally ill patients, Kevorkian and his ilk would be allowed to flourish.  ‘He was on the other side of the spectrum,’ argued executive director and attorney at the Patients Rights Council Rita Marker, pushing ‘people suggesting legalizing (physician-assisted suicide) into the middle’ (AP, Jun 5).

His legacy is not one that is treasured by some members of faith.  Ned McGrath, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Detroit was unflinching in his condemnation. ‘May god have mercy on his soul and on the scores of confused, conflicted, and at times, clinically depressed victims he killed’ (Detroit Free Press, June 3).  It was ‘ironic’ that Kevorkian himself had ‘a dignified, natural death in a hospital’, away from seedy locations in vans and motel rooms.

Kevorkian’s actions persistently received rounded condemnation from major faiths, with a coalition of Protestant, Catholic and Muslim leaders speaking on one voice on his stance.  The response from Kevorkian’s attorney at the time, Geoffrey Fieger, suggested how polarized the debate had become.  ‘They should keep their religious noses out of secular business.’

Neither position was entirely satisfactory, and the campaign for assisted suicide gathered pace in the US through the 1990s, stalling at the ballots taken in Washington (1991) and California (1992).  In 1992, Oregon became the first state to enact a statute ? the Death with Dignity Act – allowing terminally ill individuals to end their lives through the taking of lethal medication supplied by a medical practitioner. Crucially, safeguards were introduced into the legislation requiring multiple medical consultations, a threshold of six months to live, and the presence of sound mind in the patient.

The issue of dying with dignity never ends.  Rarely do people have the luxury of the quick death.  The Kevorkian legacy shows that legislation, framed appropriately, can allow for instances of assisted suicide for terminally ill patients without instances of the slippery slope taking hold.  Such legislation also eliminates the requirement of a Kevorkian to exist in the first place.

The ethical matters about how a doctor violates the Hippocratic oath remain.  The medical profession, at least in principle, is there to save life rather than end it. Nor are the spiritual matters of allowing a natural death, the domain of religion, irrelevant to the question. These are matters that no law can, by itself, ever satisfactorily frame.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Limited Time Special Offer!
Get CounterPunch Print Edition By Email for Only $25 a Year!

More articles by:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
December 09, 2019
Jefferson Morley
Trump’s Hand-Picked Prosecutor John Durham Cleared the CIA Once, Will He Again?
Kirkpatrick Sale
Political Collapse: The Center Cannot Hold
Ishmael Reed
Bloomberg Condoned Sexual Assault by NYPD 
W. T. Whitney
Hitting at Cuban Doctors and at Human Solidarity
Louisa Willcox
The Grizzly Cost of Coexistence
Thomas Knapp
Meet Virgil Griffith: America’s Newest Political Prisoner
John Feffer
How the New Right Went Global — and How to Stop It
Ralph Nader
Why Not Also Go With “The Kitchen Table” Impeachable Offenses for Removal?
M. K. Bhadrakumar
Sri Lanka Continues Its Delicate Dance With India
Robert Fisk
Meet the Controversial Actor and Businessman Standing Up Against Egypt’s el-Sisi
Dahr Jamail
Savoring What Remains: Dealing With Climate PTSD
George Wuerthner
Bison Slaughter in Yellowstone…Again
Scott Tucker
Premature Democratic Socialists: Reasons for Hope and Change
Julian Rose
Polish Minister of Health Proposes Carcinogenic 5G Emission Levels as National Norm
Dean Baker
Coal and the Regions Left Behind
Robert Koehler
Envisioning a United World
Weekend Edition
December 06, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Eat an Impeachment
Matthew Hoh
Authorizations for Madness; The Effects and Consequences of Congress’ Endless Permissions for War
Jefferson Morley
Why the Douma Chemical Attack Wasn’t a ‘Managed Massacre’
Andrew Levine
Whatever Happened to the Obama Coalition?
Paul Street
The Dismal Dollar Dems and the Subversion of Democracy
Dave Lindorff
Conviction and Removal Aren’t the Issue; It’s Impeachment of Trump That is Essential
Ron Jacobs
Law Seminar in the Hearing Room: Impeachment Day Six
Linda Pentz Gunter
Why Do We Punish the Peacemakers?
Louis Proyect
Michael Bloomberg and Me
Robert Hunziker
Permafrost Hits a Grim Threshold
Joseph Natoli
What We Must Do
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Global Poison Spring
Robert Fantina
Is Kashmir India’s Palestine?
Charles McKelvey
A Theory of Truth From the South
Walden Bello
How the Battle of Seattle Made the Truth About Globalization True
Evan Jones
BNP Before a French Court
Norman Solomon
Kerry’s Endorsement of Biden Fits: Two Deceptive Supporters of the Iraq War
Torsten Bewernitz – Gabriel Kuhn
Syndicalism for the Twenty-First Century: From Unionism to Class-Struggle Militancy
Matthew Stevenson
Across the Balkans: From Banja Luka to Sarajevo
Thomas Knapp
NATO is a Brain Dead, Obsolete, Rabid Dog. Euthanize It.
Forrest Hylton
Bolivia’s Coup Government: a Far-Right Horror Show
M. G. Piety
A Lesson From the Danes on Immigration
Ellen Isaacs
The Audacity of Hypocrisy
Monika Zgustova
Chernobyl, Lies and Messianism in Russia
Manuel García, Jr.
From Caesar’s Last Breath to Ours
Binoy Kampmark
Going to the ICJ: Myanmar, Genocide and Aung San Suu Kyi’s Gamble
Jill Richardson
Marijuana and the Myth of the “Gateway Drug”
Muzamil Bhat
Srinagar’s Shikaras: Still Waters Run Deep Losses
Gaither Stewart
War and Betrayal: Change and Transformation
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail