America has had precious few heroes in its history but Jack Kevorkian was one of them.
Kervorkian, who died recently, brought death with dignity to 130 people who were terminally ill.
But for all his humaneness he was sent to jail for eight years. Few heroes have ever had a more ignominious reward.
Yet America often jails its heroes: Thoreau, John Brown, Debs, Emma Goldman, Schenck and Abrams, the Berrigan brothers, Ralph Ginzburg and Martin Luther King.
Americans can be so generous when worldwide disasters strike. But when kindness is shown to the dying they are unforgiving, declaring that death is something only God should decide.
No wonder Kevorkian raged against his critics as “religious fanatics or nuts.”
Yet all the critics were not zealots. The three spiritual leaders of Britain, the archbishop of Canterbury (Anglican), the Roman Catholic archbishop and the chief rabbi, wrote a letter to the London Times declaring opposition to mercy killing.
“We believe that all human life is sacred and God-given with a value that is inherent,” they wrote. (The lettered can spout nonsense as well as the unwashed.)
Other anti-Kevorkians offered the far-fetched argument that physican-assisted suicide would lead to forced euthanasia.
“In arguing for the right of the terminally ill to choose how they die Dr. Kevorkian challenged social taboos about disease and dying,” the New York Times obituary pointed out. It added: his advocacy of assisted suicide made many doctors “more sympathetic to those in severe pain and more willing to prescribe medication to relieve it.”
That pain is often unbearable, the agony excruciating. One woman in France had a rare tumor eating her face away. Many people are racked with cancer. Pain is lacking in Alzhemer’s but it is a dreaded disease.
Nursing homes are jammed with people in catatonic states. Others are too feeble to help themselves. For many of the terminally ill it is torture to live yet they are forced by the law to stay alive.
Another problem: some families refuse to let “the plugs” be pulled even though the loved one is vegetating and costs skyrocketing,
Many terminally ill would drink lethal cocktails of barbituates if they could.
Kevorkian’s campaign led Oregon to adopt the nation’s first death-with-dignity law in 1997. Washington state and Montana enacted similar humane laws.
Kevorkian had another impact: raising national consciousness about “the end game,” confronting the problem of end-of-life suffering.
As Peg Sandeen, executive director of the Death With Dignity National Center, put it: he “spurred others to look for ways for those with terminal illness to end their lives on their own terms.”
His lawyer, Geoffrey Feiger, spoke of Kevorkian’s compassion and mercy, qualities that Americans often lack.
A Michigan journalist wrote of Dr. K: he was “a major force for good in society,” making it pay attention to “the fact that vast numbers of people are alive who would rather be dead.”
And Kevorkian himself in an interview with the New York Times said: “My ultimate aim is to make euthanasia a positive experience. I’m trying to knock the medical profession into accepting its responsibilities. Those responsibilities include assisting their patients with death.”
The Dr. K story was dramatized in a 2010 movie on HBO, “You don’t know Jack.” Al Pacino, who played Kevorkian, received Emmy and Golden Globe awards for his performance. Accepting the Golden Globe award, Pacino sized up his man well: he was gratified to “portray someone as brilliant and interesting and unique.”
But the American Medical Association was purblind as usual, calling Kevorkian “a reckless instrument of death” who posed “a great threat to the public.”
Dr. K visited The Netherlands in 1987 to study the legal mercy-killing techniques of Dutch doctors. His movement spread. Assisted suicide is also legal in Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland.
Today Zurich is the euthanasia capital of the world with more than 1,000 willing deaths provided by Dignitas. The group slogan: “To live with dignity, to die with dignity.” Dignitas also provides assisted suicide for people who want to die for various reasons.
Kevorkian was convicted of second-degree murder in 1999 after giving a fatal injection to Thomas Youk, who was suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Like all of Dr. K’s patients, Youk was required to express a wish to die and to think about it for a month. Dr. K also consulted family, doctors and psychiatrists.
Moreover, Dr. K never charged patients and bore all expenses.
Life is not sacred when living in unbearable pain, living like a vegetable and living with dementia.
Jake Highton teaches journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno.