Dr. Death is dead.
Murad (Jack) Kevorkian, whose name has been synonymous with doctor-assisted suicide, died last week at 83. He spent eight years in a maximum-security prison for helping the sick end their suffering. But Kevorkian was no angel…of death. He was eccentric, flamboyant and obstinate about his pet cause. He taunted the authorities, doing himself no favors in the process. But he did force us as a country to talk for a minute about the rights of the dying.
Kevorkian himself died quietly in a hospital due to a blood clot.
We tend to treat death as something we can beat. You’re supposed to beat cancer, the number two cause of death in this country. We celebrate those who triumph over disease. Survivors become centerpieces of schmaltzy fluff segments on the evening news. We whistle past the fact we are all at some point going to die.
Three states have Death with Dignity Laws: Oregon, Washington and – due to a court decision and the failure by the state legislature this year to outlaw it – Montana. In these states there are actual death panels: procedures to carry out the wishes of the dying including how to administer the final overdose of barbiturates.
The problem with the Health Care Reform Lie of the Year – the made-up death panels (beside the fact it wasn’t true) – is it made end-of-life issues politically taboo. The rumor of a secret Star Chamber Government Death Panel has inhibited any openness to the conversation about physician-assisted suicide.
Yes, opportunistic fear mongering has scared us away from addressing our ultimate fear.
My 12-year-old dog had lymphoma. Her body rapidly decomposed while still alive. Zombie tales must have been first inspired by helplessly watching the sick suffer. That was my puppy – unable to eat or manage stairs. Her nose oozed blood. Her breathing became progressively more labored. She was not going to get better. Her vet pleaded with me to put her down. “It’s the best thing you can do for her now.” I had my hand on her head as she passed.
I’m not advocating everyone who is sick and not going to get better should be put down. Also, to be clear, I’m not equating dogs with people. But, I would like to think I myself could be allowed the same compassion my dog received when it comes for my end.
This year’s Sundance Film Festival debut, currently airing on HBO is the documentary by Peter D. Richardson, How to Die in Oregon. Since the state’s Death with Dignity act was passed in 1994, approximately 500 people have partaken. The film opens with #343, Mr. Roger Sagner, being handed a lethal cocktail of drugs while surrounded by his family and loved ones. He’s asked if he has any final words. He pauses, looks down at the ground and declares, “I thank the wisdom of the voters of the state of Oregon.” Then he sips the barbiturate slurry and lies down. We then follow an activist, a volunteer, an opponent and an advocate of the law. It’s pragmatic, honest and intentionally haunting.
The film brings up an interesting question: What do end of life decisions look like in a free country? Currently, they look like they are ruled mostly by religious paranoia and rather than by individual choice. Part of the problem is we hope we won’t die, so we don’t want to think about it. Since death actually scares us, scaring people about death takes little effort.
A law in Oregon which has helped 500 people over the last nearly two decades has not been a “slippery slope,” and it has not encouraged statistically more suicides. In short, that law has not lived up to any of the fears put forth by opponents. And yet, sadly, this type of legislation will rot in the field in most states.
The person who rubbed our face in our own mortality, the most famous and wacky of Death with Dignity advocates, Dr. Kevorkian is no longer with us. He’d probably appreciate the irony in calling his death a loss for the dying.
But to quote another health care reform canard, “Do you want the government in between you and your doctor?”
Because in 47 other states – it is.
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