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From the Daily: Learning from Dr. Death

BY THE MICHIGAN DAILY

Published June 5, 2011

Jack Kevorkian, widely known for his support for euthanasia, died painlessly from a thrombosis on June 3. In the early ’90s, Kevorkian, a graduate from the University’s Medical School, thrust the right-to-die issue into the American mainstream, and in the following years there were legislative attempts both to block and legalize euthanasia. The complex moral and legal intricacies of this issue were somewhat lost with Kevorkian’s theatrics, but that should not damage the merit of his position — an autonomous individual, if they so choose, should be allowed to end their suffering through death.

At the outset of Kevorkian’s radical pursuits, there were no parameters to guide a physician or regulate the death of a terminal patient. Michigan had no laws against physician-assisted suicide, so when he was charged with the murder of Janet Adkins, he was found innocent, as there was no specific law that he violated. He provided the terminally ill Alzheimer’s patient with a machine that would deliver a lethal dose of potassium chloride if she desired it, and this was the way she ended her life. It wasn’t until the enfant terrible killed a patient himself that he was finally sent to prison for murder.

The morality, medical appropriateness and legality of these issues got lost in the wake of Kevorkian’s histrionics. Rather than focusing on the issues surrounding assisted suicide, euthanasia became intimately associated with “Dr. Death” and its legitimacy waned. Rather than seeking a forum to determine euthanasia’s regulation, Kevorkian continued to assist suicides solely based on his and his patients’ views. Intuitively, this may seem sufficient, but these are precarious evaluations especially when 50 percent of the decision is coming from a terminally ill patient.

Part of legalizing physician-assisted suicide must include a comprehensive and rigorous review process that both the patient and doctor must go through before the treatment is provided. Oregon, where euthanasia is legal, requires the permission of two doctors and a terminal diagnosis predicting death in fewer than six months, yet these regulations are insufficient. At a minimum, there should be a panel of medical professionals that review euthanasia requests. The patient should also undergo a psychiatric evaluation to determine his or her mental health. If the patient is terminally ill and mentally stable, a medical professional trained for euthanasia should provide the means to perform such a task.

This issue has massive implications and asks humanity to challenge very fundamental concepts of life. But euthanasia's volatile nature should not prevent it from being explored and evaluated. The fear of discussing a macabre topics as well as the inevitable public backlash should not prevent physicians from providing individuals a peaceful alternative to an agonizing death. The complex nature of physician-assisted suicide requires transparent and thorough oversight for death requests made by patients. Kevorkian was brave to foray into this area, but his myopia damaged both his legitimacy and more importantly, the legitimacy of his cause. His actions show how this practice needs more oversight, but also how the medical paradigm must be expanded for those unable to meet an end as peaceful as his.