|AP - Feb. 6: 1991: Physician assisted-suicide advocate Dr. Jack Kevorkian poses with his 'suicide machine' in Michigan|
Today’s announcement of the death of Jack Kevorkian marks the end of an era. Don’t get me wrong; I do not agree with Kevorkian’s tactics, and think that many of his actions over the years were simply self-aggrandizing, rather than altruistic attempts to further his cause. But Kevorkian’s antics were helpful in terms of consciousness-raising about the issues of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide in America. In a deliberate way, Kevorkian challenged the public to consider what constitutes a life worth living and how we ought to die well. He challenged us to consider not just the abstract notion of suffering, but also the daily struggles experienced by many with debilitating, progressive, degenerative illness. Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that there is strong public support for individual choice about the “right to die,” including the moral right to end one’s own life in some circumstances. Yet for many years, public policy did not reflect the will of the people. Not until 1994 -- five years before Kevorkian’s conviction for second degree murder in the death of Thomas Youk, which he videotaped and showed on the CBS News Program 60 Minutes -- was the first ballot referendum successful in Oregon (and it was another 4 years before its implementation, thanks to a requirement to reaffirm the public’s commitment to this policy). Washington legalized physician-assisted suicide in 2009, and similar bills have been introduced in at least 10 other states (Death with Dignity).
Kevorkian’s persistent attention to the issue of human suffering challenged the American public to consider the values that ground our approach to health care and the policies that support them. Certainly, we cannot credit Kevorkian with all of this work, but he clearly served as the catalyst for the national discussion about the issue of physician-assisted suicide. Rest in peace, Dr. Kevorkian.
Toby L. Schonfeld, Ph.D., is the Director of the Master of Bioethics Program at the Center for Ethics. Dr. Schonfeld is also Associate Professor of Medicine at the Emory University School of Medicine.