December 17, 1993

Jack Kevorkian, M.D.

How can there be a right to die? You don't have a right to live or die. You're going to die. It's mandated by nature. It's a natural axiom. All you have is the right to choose when, how, and where.

Jack Kevorkian, 1991

Hardly a month goes by when Jack Kevorkian isn't in the news. He periodically assists someone to commit suicide, is then arrested and released. Last month he ended up in the pokey for a day or two before someone paid his bail. At this writing, he is in jail and on a hunger strike.

"Doctor Death," as he is often called, is a hero to some and an arch villain to others. He even looks the part. If I had to imagine an angel of death, he would look like Jack Kevorkian. That he marches to the beat of a different drummer is certain. Besides being a thorn in the side of the powers that be in Michigan, he is also a thorn in the side of many people who would like to see assisted suicide made legal. They feel that he has a negative effect on their cause.

What makes Kevorkian unusual is the fact that he is completely up-front; what you see is what he is -- no pretense, no euphemisms. Instead of "he has passed to his reward," it is "he wanted to die, so I helped him to kill himself. Now he's dead." We just aren't used to people simply saying what's on their mind, particularly about death and dying.

Kevorkian is a retired pathologist. To a pathologist, as to an undertaker, death is nothing. When he sees the body stretched out on the autopsy table, he seldom stops to think that this was once a living breathing person. When he cuts into it, it feels no pain. What Kevorkian is very aware of is that being dead is painless.

I have heard him speak a number of times, and everything that he says makes sense. What disturbs people is that he simply says it without fuss or evasion. What he says is that there are people who are living in pain, for whom there is no possibility of their recovering, who want to die. Kevorkian believes that physicians should be permitted to help those people to kill themselves. Note that I, as does Kevorkian, have avoided euphemisms. We are not talking, as does Derek Humphrey, about "self deliverance," we are talking about suicide, which is the act of killing one's self. Assisted suicide is asking someone, usually a physician, to help you to do it.

Physicians frequently help people who are terminally ill to commit suicide. They will either prescribe a drug and tell the patient what dose is required to kill himself, or they might give him a lethal injection. No physician in his right mind would do this unless he trusted both the patient and the close relatives.

Suicide, in many states, is illegal. It is a law which cannot be enforced if the person committing the crime is successful. If he is unsuccessful, the most that he can be charged with is attempted suicide --a lesser offense. No one would be concerned about a mandatory death penalty for successfully committing suicide. As long as suicide is considered a crime, assisting in it is also a crime.

So what makes Kevorkian tick? Not knowing him, I can only guess. I was, at the age of 20, a pathologist's assistant. My guess is that, after doing pathology for all of his life, he decided that he wanted to make a difference to the living --and he is doing just that by helping some join the ranks of the dead. There is an aphorism that says that an internist knows everything and does nothing; a surgeon knows nothing and does everything; a pathologist knows everything, does everything --but it's too late. Not for Jack Kevorkian.

I have known people who like to live in obscurity and some who court the limelight. All are individuals; all have their virtues and faults. All are, in their own way, a bit flaky. Flakiness and individuality go together. Jack Kevorkian is both crazier and saner than most people. In the musical Man of La Mancha, Sancho Panza sings a song about how he feels about his nutty master Don Quixote. It expresses my feelings about Jack Kevorkian: I Like Him.

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