Jack Kevorkian: Trailblazer on End-of-Life Issues

  Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who, by his in-your-face approach brought to the forefront the plight of terminally ill patients’ right to die in dignity when they have no options to live with dignity and autonomy, died in May. He was 83. In the 1990s he brought to the fore the inability (or is it unwillingness?) of our society at large — the medical establishment, the legislature, the clergy, law enforcement authorities, and the judiciary — to come to grips with the agony of not only the terminally ill people, but also their care-givers.

Given our compartmentalized lifestyle, people cannot comprehend the sense of deprivation and the deeply personal pain the terminally ill suffer; and the agony of those closely living with the terminally ill taking care of them 24/7.

We admire modern medicine for coming up with new procedures, medicines, and gadgets for finding cures for scores of illnesses and extending our productive lives; but in the end, these marvels also simply prolong life without addressing the issues on the basic human dignity and autonomy of patients, and the associated cost. So, it was necessary that Kevorkian used unorthodox approaches to bring the central issues of the terminally ill in public discourse. Indeed, his approach was very effective. 

As the New York Times said in its obituary to Kevorkian, “In arguing for the right of the terminally ill to choose how they die, Dr. Kevorkian challenged social taboos about disease and dying while defying prosecutors and the courts.”  He helped 130 terminally ill people to end their lives. His critics called him Dr. Death. He was convicted of second degree murder in the death of his last patient. Sentenced to 10 to 25 years in a maximum security prison, Kevorkian was released after spending eight years in prison after agreeing not to help others to end their lives.

Jack Lessenberry, the Michigan journalist who covered Dr. Kevorkian, wrote in The Detroit Metro Times: “Jack Kevorkian, faults and all, was a major force for good in this society. He forced us to pay attention to one of the biggest elephants in society’s living room: the fact that today vast numbers of people are alive who would rather be dead, who have lives not worth living.”

Kevorkian’s crusade on behalf of the terminally ill led to the growth of the hospice care industry with improvements in the quality of care. The medical establishment itself changed its approach to pain management.  And Oregon even legalized medical ending the life for the terminally ill, and removed the criminality and social stigma for their decision.

The central issue for which Kevorkian fought is only going to become acute in the years ahead, with an even more aging population, and reduced government resources available for Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor. One day, society will even thank Kevorkian for bringing to the forefront the dilemmas and challenges faced by the terminally ill.

We are honored to do it today itself. Thank you, Dr. Kevorkian.

 —  K S Venkataraman

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