Kevorkian’s issue is still alive

Aug 21, 2002 at 12:00 am

They moved Jack Kevorkian last week, from a tiny solitary cell in the sprawling state prison complex at Jackson to a medium-security joint in Lapeer, closer to his home.

Nobody much noticed. Once, a mere stroll down the sidewalk was enough to guarantee Jack the Dripper a mention on the news. Now, he’s been all but forgotten. Occasionally, people ask if he is still alive.

The real tragedy is that the issue he put on the world’s radar screen also has been largely forgotten, though it is as important as ever.

Kevorkian is, of course, mostly to blame for his own destruction. After years of struggle, he had essentially de-criminalized his brand of physician-assisted suicide. Not content with that enormous victory, he insisted on moving on to euthanasia, and rubbing it in the authorities’ faces.

Finally, he fired Geoffrey Fieger, just to make sure the lawyer who had made him possible couldn’t save him once again. Which is, to put it mildly, too bad. Not for Kevorkian, but for the rest of us. Six years ago, the debate over assisted suicide was one of the biggest stories in the nation. And though everybody complained about the circus, it led to something positive.

Newspapers and national magazines not only covered Kevorkian’s antics, they also devoted space to serious debate over whether terribly ill people should have the right to ask a doctor to help them die.

Doctors, who often had been incredibly callous, started cleaning up their act. Medicine started to get more serious about pain management. People began asking why — if a woman who doesn’t want a pregnancy can abort it — can’t they choose when to die? Why must I be kept alive when I am miserable, I want to go, and doctors can do nothing for me?

Oregon voters even enacted — twice — a law allowing the terminally ill to ask their doctors for a lethal dose, a law which remains in force, despite the best efforts of Ayatollah Ashcroft and the religious nuts to take away their freely chosen right.

Yet when Kevorkian went into the slam in April 1999, interest in the issue evaporated. The crowds who supported him mostly melted away after his taped euthanasia was broadcast on “60 Minutes.”

“I realized this was about him and his emotional needs, not the patient,” the wife of one early Kevorkian client said.

Prisoners, as the successful prosecutor told me the day of his conviction, usually can’t hold press conferences. Without the catalyst, the media, which have the collective memory of a gnat, quickly moved on. Today, the chattering class has identified child stealing as the only major social issue worthy of consideration.

Never mind the fact that the number of child kidnappings actually has decreased every year for the past five years. Never mind that the number of the old and infirm and agonizingly ill increases dramatically every year.

The truth is that the option of legal, reliable, regulated physician-assisted suicide is needed, now more than ever. You see the stories, small and muted, from time to time.

No longer physically able to care for his aged wife, an elderly doctor shoots first her and then himself.

A mother kills two sons afflicted with a deadly brain disease.

People diagnosed with bone cancer or the first stages of Alzheimer’s or Lou Gehrig’s disease blow their brains out.

But they might not if they could count on a safe and peaceful end. In fact, many of those Kevorkian promised to help were reassured and went on to die naturally.

“Some people say he had the right message but was the wrong messenger,” Mayer Morgenroth, the attorney now handling Kevorkian’s appeals, told me the other day.

“But if he hadn’t been the way he was, he never would have made any impact. And this issue never would have gotten into the public eye.”

Today, Morgenroth is waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether to hear his appeal of Kevorkian’s conviction. He has asked for it to be overturned on a number of technical and philosophical grounds.

Don’t bet on any kind of a precedent-shattering ruling legalizing assisted suicide. These same justices voted 9-0 against finding such a right six years ago, though a couple said they might revisit the issue. My guess is that they won’t take Kevorkian’s case at all.

But whatever your thoughts on the issue, he has been punished enough for what was, essentially, a political protest crime. He went to jail for killing a dying man who came to him and begged for a peaceful end so he wouldn’t go choking on his own spit.

For that Kevorkian, now 74, has served more than three years in unusually harsh conditions for an elderly first offender, most of it in what amounted to solitary and maximum security. Now, he vows that his days performing assisted suicide are over.

He says he wants only to fight for the issue. If that’s the case, he should be released.

Incidentally, we all owe a big debt to Kevorkian, even those of us convinced he’s destined to fry in hell. Because of what he did, many patients everywhere are getting better pain management than before he raised public awareness.

And there is the little matter we all want to avoid thinking about. Unless you crash that new Porsche into the underpass, the odds are very likely that someday you will be old, helpless, in miserable shape and without any prospects of getting better.

I have no idea what you should do then. I don’t even have any idea what I will do then. But I do think we should all have a choice. That’s why, whatever his weirdness, Jack Kevorkian was, and still is, important.

Jack Lessenberry is a contributing editor to Metro Times. E-mail comments to [email protected]