James Donahue's Stories
Death With Dignity
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Unsung American Hero Kevorkian Coming Home To Die

By James Donahue

Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the Michigan pathologist who went to prison on a murder charge after conducting a defiant campaign to legalize doctor-assisted suicides, will be released June 1 after serving more than eight years of a 10-25-year sentence.

Ironically, Kevorkian, who helped many people escape the agony of a long and painful death from terminal illness, is coming home to die of his own terminal illness. He is suffering from hepatitis C, an incurable disease of the liver.

In spite of his sacrificial efforts only one state in the union, Oregon, has a law that permits physician-assisted suicide. Even though he had many supporters, the movement was blocked by Catholic and fundamental Christian groups who advocate pain and suffering for all. Legislative attempts to follow Oregon's example were unsuccessfully attempted in Hawaii, Wisconsin, Vermont and Washington. Ballot measures also were defeated by voters in Washington, California, Michigan and Maine.

Kevorkian' conducted his campaign for nearly a decade before a Macomb County prosecutor succeeded in getting a murder conviction based upon evidence produced by Kevorkian himself. He videotaped a death that was broadcast on CBS "60 Minutes," which became his final effort to drive his message into the minds of the masses.

What Kevorkian accomplished was raise awareness of the suffering endured by the terminally ill, and the need for "end-of-life care" in America. Thus the concept of hospice care, where dying patients are eased out under a doctor's assistance, with adequate medications to ease their pain and suffering, has grown in popularity.

Before Kevorkian, most doctors were reluctant to give dying patients too much pain medication for fear they would be accused of hastening death. While the so-called "war on drugs" in the United States still has doctors spooked about treating pain effectively, conditions for the terminally ill and dying have improved.

The Oregon law allows only terminally ill, mentally competent adults to ask a physician to prescribe life-ending drugs. But the patient must make the request in writing and two times orally. They also must self-administer the medication.

A recent report noted that since the Oregon law went into effect in 1997 until the end of last year, 292 people chose this option. Most of them were cancer patients and their median age was 74.

There is something strange about an unwillingness by most people in the world to contemplate their own mortality, and to deal with their own silent fear of death. For most of us, the fear is not centered so much on death as it is on the high probability that we will suffer while passing from this existence to the next.

Of the many evil concepts imposed on mankind by the Christian church, the demand that doctors must maintain and preserve life at all costs is among the worst. Thus there is a big business in the United States that milks insurance companies and forces the cost of medical care through the roof, mostly caused by entire floors of hospitals with terminally ill and often brain-dead people, still being kept alive by a barrage of machines that breath, pump blood and even feed their comotose bodies.

Keeping suffering people alive for weeks, months and sometimes years on these machines and refusing to let them die is the very thing Dr. Kevorkian was fighting. Only the lucky few die quickly and without warning, either by accident or sudden seizure such as a heart attack or stroke.

Our position is that the physician's oath has always been to relieve pain and suffering, not to keep people alive and extend this pain and sufferiing. Sometimes this oath can best be accomplished by easing the patient comfortably through the process of dying.

We all deserve the right to choose a death with dignity. For the terminally ill, Kevorkian offered this choice, if only for a brief time. That our Christian-driven legal and social system charged him with murder and forced hm to spend his own twilight years behind bars was a disgrace for all involved.