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Kevorkian vs. death panels: There is a huge difference

May 3rd, 2010

Mary Shaw

He's back: Dr. Jack Kevorkian, aka "Dr. Death" -- advocate for euthanasia and assisted suicide, or what many of us see as the right of terminally ill patients to choose a quick and dignified death over a painful, lingering one.

On April 24, HBO premiered its original film You Don't Know Jack, starring Al Pacino as Dr. Kevorkian and Susan Sarandon as the head of a local chapter of the Hemlock Society, an advocacy organization for end-of-life choices. And I've been hearing follow-up conversations in all kinds of places, from the hair salon to the supermarket checkout line. Some are likening Kevorkian's services to the imaginary death panels that Sarah Palin warned us about. I heard one right-winger speculate jokingly that Obama might want to appoint Jack Kevorkian as his Surgeon General for ObamaCare. While amusing, his comment was far from credible.

Dr. Kevorkian's services were not designed to save insurance companies or the medical industry money. His services were meant to relieve the unbearable suffering of the terminally ill. Despite the theatrics that surrounded Kevorkian's work, assisted suicide is a serious issue that continues to impact the lives of dying adults and their families, as well as others who believe in the right of the terminally ill to die with dignity on their own terms.

As of this writing, Oregon, Washington, and Montana are the only states in the U.S. where physician-assisted suicide is legally available for terminally ill patients. It is also legal in a small handful of European nations. Everywhere else, the terminally ill are forced to endure sometimes horrific pain at the end of life, or end their misery with a plastic bag, a noose, or other undignified means. And those sad, desperate acts will continue as long as so-called "pro-life" factions keep fighting attempts to widen the acceptance of physician-assisted suicide and provide more people with the power to choose a good death over a horrible, slow, painful one.

What it boils down to is this: While life is precious and should not be thrown away lightly, modern medical science cannot yet provide adequate pain control for all dying patients, even in the best hospices.

While physicians are sworn to do no harm, is it not harmful to force a dying patient to suffer a slow, lingering death against his or her will, perhaps kept alive artificially with respirators and feeding tubes?

When a pet becomes ill to the point where it is near death and suffering uncontrollably, a veterinarian will not think twice before recommending that the pet be euthanized, to put the animal out of its misery.

So why do we treat our dying pets with more mercy than we treat our dying people?

I have to agree with Derek Humphry, founder of the Hemlock Society (now known as Compassion and Choices) and author of the controversial suicide manual Final Exit, who said: "Surely the right to die in a manner and at a time one's own choosing is the ultimate civil liberty."

And the key word here is choosing.

No death panels, just respect for the rational end-of-life wishes of the suffering.

No death panels, just compassion.

No death panels, just a choice.

Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views on politics, human rights, and social justice issues have appeared in numerous online forums and in newspapers and magazines worldwide. Note that the ideas expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Amnesty International or any other organization with which she may be associated. E-mail: mary@maryshawonline.com

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