“Death With Dignity”: Dr. Kevorkian’s Archives Shed Light on the “Right To Die” Movement

By Elizabeth Barrett, Liberal Studies/Psychology

 

Should humans be allowed to determine their own death, especially if they are terminally ill and suffering?

For most of America’s history, this was not an option for anyone. Then, in the 80s, a man named Dr. Jack Kevorkian brought the topic to the forefront. He was arrested and convicted of murder for his services: helping people die. Although criticized by many, Dr. Kevorkian has been hailed as a hero and provided a platform for much needed reform on the subject of euthanasia. In the last few decades, fueled by rising awareness from Dr. Kevorkian and other activists, five states have adopted new laws that allow terminally ill patients to choose to end their own lives. While the morality and ethics of euthanasia remain heavily debated topics, recent cases, as well as the release of Dr. Kevorkian’s archives, offer a more personal view on the subject.

When someone’s pet is dying, they are allowed to bring them to a medical facility, and watch as a trained professional administers medication that will peacefully end the pet’s suffering.  Why is this same act of mercy a normal procedure for humans? Yes, the practice of end-of-life care and hospice services has greatly improved over the last few decades. But there are still millions of people who must suffer while their families helplessly watch them deteriorate, sometimes over years.  

Dr. Kevorkian believed terminally or severely ill people had a right to take their own lives, if they desired. He spent much of his career advocating euthanasia. His license was revoked after his first assisted suicide, but he continued to offer his services through the 90s; according to his lawyer, he assisted in the deaths of 130 people. He was convicted of murder in 1999 and was labeled a monster, then relatively forgotten until his release in 2007.

Dr. Kevorkian did not allegedly kill anyone himself; each of his patients had to push the button themselves that would ultimately end their lives.  Although there has been speculation that some of his patients were not terminal, or were not 100% on board, Kevorkian and his supporters insist that each patient was solely responsible for the final decision.

The recently released archives of Kevorkian do seem to align with his claims of thorough examinations and counseling, and shed a light on some of his patients. One such patient was Merian Frederick, who sought the doctors help after years of suffering from multiple diseases and illness which left her crippled and in severe pain. According to her files, Kevorkian counseled her for a few years and urged her to try other remedies before finally agreeing to help her with her death.  

In one of the videos, Kevorkian is seen speaking with Frederick, her daughter, and her minister. The minister tells Kevorkian how she has expressed her desire to go on, and when Kevorkian asks Frederick if she has any doubts about her decision, her response is a big “No”, written on a pad.  

In another video, Kevorkian records Frederick as she signs a form, which gave Kevorkian permission to help her die “in the most humane, rapid and painless manner possible”.  Her daughter then reads a note that her mother wrote, saying, “My tears should not be taken as an indication that I am in doubt”.

This seems to paint a much different picture of Kevorkian, his methods, and whole topic of assisted suicide. Indeed, it is a very personal decision that should be left to the patient and family. In fact, in the last few years, more people have stood up and proclaimed that these options are important and should be available to everyone.

In 2014, a woman named Brittany Maynard stirred controversy and pity from the world, as she boldly allowed the world to follow her last year of life.  Terminally ill with a rare form of brain cancer, the 29 year old moved to Oregon, one of the few states that allow assisted suicide, to take advantage of the law. She chose to die peacefully in her home, surrounded by family, by taking a lethal does of prescribed medication. Her story was shared by millions and opened the door to more discussion on a topic which should be more important than it is.

Since then, a few other states have either passed “Death with Dignity” laws, allowing physician-assisted suicide, or considered them. Still, there are only five states in which it is legal, California being the most recent. Maine recently considered, but the legislation did not pass. Perhaps, with the recent rise in awareness and the use of social media to magnify cases like Brittany Maynard, the trend will continue and more states will consider a human’s right to die.

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