Judi K-Turkel: Plea for a forgotten fighter - Let Kevorkian die at home with dignity
By Judi K-Turkel
A very sick 78-year-old doctor is dying in a Michigan prison, an anachronism left over from the 20th century. Should we let him die in prison, or do we have the decency to say, "Enough is enough. Release him and let him die at home"?
The doctor is Jack Kevorkian, who was sentenced in 1999 to 10 to 25 years in Michigan's Lakeland Correctional Facility for Men. He traded his freedom for openly, shamelessly touting what he called our "right to die with dignity." He'd spent the 10 prior years brashly, illegally helping 130 terminally ill people end excruciatingly painful lives.
After 10 years in prison, he finally comes up for parole the middle of next year. But his friends tell me he may not live until then.
To be honest, I had forgotten all about Dr. Kevorkian's long fight for death with dignity. After I made sure to sign my own "do not resuscitate" and "no heroic measures" directives, his plight slipped my mind. Then I got a note from the daughter of an old high school friend. Though unrelated to Dr. Kevorkian, her last name is the same. Often asked, "Are you related?" it led her to learn about this forgotten, dying man. Appalled at his frailness, she is backing a petition for the doctor's release.
When Dr. Kevorkian practiced in the 1980s, great pain was still a given endured stoically in childbirth, in accidents, in mental and physical illness, in death. At the end of life, assisted death was only ever OK for animals. It was outspoken, unflinching Dr. Kevorkian who forced us all to consider, "Do our parents have the right to a dignified death when there's no cure and only agony ahead? Or does anyone, even a doctor, have the right to help a sufferer end his or her own life?"
The debate over end-of-life options isn't resolved yet. Assisted suicide is still criminal in 44 states, including Wisconsin. Only in Oregon and Ohio is it explicitly legal. (Despite a push by the Bush team, the U.S. Supreme Court last year upheld Oregon's law, which sheltered 246 terminally ill Oregonians in its first eight years. Oregon, incidentally, has the lowest hospital death rate in the nation and the highest rate of people who are allowed to die at home. Oregon Hospice Association CEO Ann Jackson feels it's at least partly due to the fact that Oregonians can choose to die with dignity.)
Death is still an unpopular subject, despite public support for Terri Schiavo's right to die. But at least now doctors and hospitals urge us all to provide legal end-of-life do-not-resuscitate and no-heroic-measures directives. If you've ever been grateful that a loved one got you off the hook by "having it in writing," it's partly stubborn, crusading old Dr. Kevorkian you can thank.
Kevorkian antagonized a lot of people with his in-your-face flaunting of the "Do not kill no matter what" mandate. He thinks it was his crusading political and legal attacks that made Michigan throw away the key. "The government knows I'm not a criminal. The parole board knows I'm not a criminal. The judge knows I'm not a criminal." Yet he's sure: "I'll die in prison. There is nothing anyone can do. The public has no power."
Now that his 5-foot-8-inch frame is down to 114 pounds, do we still have anything to fear from Dr. Kevorkian? Or do you think he should be released to die at home?
Love him or hate him, if you think enough is enough, do add your signature as I did to the petition for his release at the Web site http://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/761877453.
Judi K-Turkel is a journalist and author based in Madison.
Published: June 13, 2006