RIP Jack Kevorkian: Pioneer, Zealot, Dramatic Foil
This remembrance was originally posted on Scott Swenson's invaluable Progressive Spirit website.
Jack Kevorkian's death, as reported in the media this morning, was not assisted. He took no pills, used no machines, so it seems. He died like most people, from complications of an underlying disease; evidently his suffering never reached a level where he sought a way out, as did the terminally-ill patients he assisted throughout his controversial and storied career.
People facing death don't run towards it, as many of Kevorkian's detractors believe, suggesting that by giving patients more options as they face death or actually assisting them, somehow creates a culture of death. As Kevorkian's own death proves, most people fight until the end, but in rare circumstances, what he knew was that suffering can be too much. Jack Kevorkian alleviated that suffering for many which is why he is now a household name.
Kevorkian was a pioneer, a lone-ranger, taking up a cause with a relentless zeal that, regardless of your views on physician-assisted dying, one has to admire. His message was simple: in an increasingly mechanized and technological age, modern medicine is trapping many sick people in a life of suffering and torture that can be alleviated if they choose. His tactics were crass, made for media, anathema to those working to pass death with dignity laws.
In seven years of work I did supporting and promoting Oregon's Death with Dignity law between 1997-2006, Jack Kevorkian was a convenient foil. There would be no Oregon, Washington, or Montana Death with Dignity laws without Jack Kevorkian, largely because proponents of those laws were able to distance themselves from Kevorkian and chart a moderate path involving all stakeholders. Oregon's law, the model of patient driven end-of-life care, stands today as a testament to statecraft. It is a careful and elegant use the law's neutrality to create a safe-harbor for patients and doctors to honor last wishes, using a clear set of guidelines bringing to light a practice that existed underground and unregulated, thus inaccessible to most people.
Jack Kevorkian would have been arrested under Oregon's law, but his dedication to alleviating suffering of those who sought his help, was the reason Oregon's law could win voter approval.
His life made a difference not only to the people he assisted, but to those who now have legal access to death with dignity laws, and to millions more for whom the end-of-life journey continues to improve as more attention is paid to hospice, palliative care, pain management -- putting the patient first. There is still a long way to go.
Many people believe only God gives and takes life, and somehow they turn modern technology and medicine into God, not understanding that what many people want is not more treatment, but less, not more quantity of time but to be able to enjoy, free from heavy sedation, whatever time they have left. Life's pleasures get pretty simple as it comes to an end, especially for those who've battled terminal illness. Jack Kevorkian understood this, and he understood he wasn't playing God, but rather responding to a patient's suffering and desperate pleas for help.
As Baby Boomers continue to watch their parents, friends or themselves enter into this phase of life and recognize modern medicine's shortcomings, there will be calls for more reforms, and passage of laws, like those in effect in the Pacific Northwest. These laws honor Kevorkian's zealotry, even if he didn't think they went far enough, and the movement that grew up not around him, but stood in relief from him, ensures the safety, care and comfort of terminally-ill people seeking relief.
The Oregon data continues to show how rarely and carefully the law is used, it's greatest asset the peace of mind patients receive from knowing they have an option of last resort should their suffering become intolerable. For many people, Jack Kevorkian's crusade offered them that same peace of mind, knowing someone was fighting for them.
We often need a crazy-genius-zealot to wake us up. Jack Kevorkian played that part well. Rest In Peace.