Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a pathologist, was satirized by media pundits who dubbed him “Dr. Death.” He was both assailed and respected for the “assisted-suicide” movement he championed in the U.S.
“My ultimate aim is to make euthanasia a positive experience,” Kevorkian said shortly after helping Janet Adkins, an Oregon teacher who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, end her life on June 4, 1990. In Adkins’ case, she had Alzheimer’s disease and did not wish to suffer its progression. She was not diagnosed as terminal. “I’m trying to knock the medical profession into accepting its responsibilities, and those responsibilities include assisting their patients with death,” Kervorkian said about her case at the time. Adkins signed forms stating that she wanted to die.
Kevorkian, who was tried and acquitted of murder in the Adkins’ case, eventually served eight years in prison for providing assistance in 130 such cases – most of which involved patients suffering from terminal medical maladies. Kervorkian died at the age of 83 in 2011.
Kervorkian once said, “dying is not a crime,” To many, especially those who have watched loved ones suffer through advanced terminal illnesses, his words are profoundly poignant.
Today, as the country’s population ages, physician-assisted “aid in dying,” as a social issue, has roared back to prominence. The surging movement is driven by a swell of baby-boomers who see end-of-life issues differently than past generations. Even the healthiest boomers realize they are in the last quarter of life. With no end to cancer and other dread diseases in sight, a more reasoned perspective to physician-assisted euthanasia has evolved.
Part of Kevorkian’s problem – besides the fact that assisted suicide was then and is still illegal in most states – was semantics. An excited media coined his actions, thereby the movement, as physician-assisted “suicide.” Regrettably, too many people who are passionately troubled by the word “suicide” lack compassion for terminally ill patients forced to endure relentless pain and suffering. Nevertheless, the concept of providing aid-in-dying to terminally ill patients wasting away in their deathbeds is not going away.
For example, a Gallup poll taken May 7, 2013 showed that 70% of Americans are in favor of allowing doctors to aid a terminally ill patient in dying when described as allowing doctors to “end the patient’s life by some painless means.” At the same time, far fewer (51%) support it when the process is described as doctors helping a patient “commit suicide.”
The Gallup poll clearly indicates that most people approve of physician-assisted aid in dying, and that support increased dramatically when the word “suicide” was not in the survey.
Opposition to physician-assisted “aid in dying” remains formidable; however, its advocacy transcends social and political boundaries and has tipped the scales in favor of compassion, which is at the heart of the matter.
Currently four states, Montana, Oregon, Vermont and Washington, allow terminally-ill patients to opt for physician-assisted aid-in-dying, however doctors in those states face restrictions against providing treatment to out-of-state residents.