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Kevorkian Reconsidered

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"The American people are sheep. They're comfortable, rich, working. It's like the Romans, they're happy with bread and their spectator sports." - Jack Kevorkian, Oakland Press, 4/2004

Somewhat more than a year after Katrina's second landfall on Louisiana's gulf coast on August 29, 2005 the horrifying images of desperation, devastation, and death that dominated television screens around the world for weeks afterward are already beginning to settle into the dust bin of contemporary American history.

But in recalling the scene where hundreds of people are screaming, "Help! Help! Help!" into television cameras outside of New Orleans' Superdome and with confirmed reports of doctors administering lethal doses of morphine to alleviate the suffering there I found myself, oddly, thinking about Dr. Jack Kevorkian.

With the Supreme Court, in a vote earlier this year, giving a 6-3 nod to states considering the legality of laws that allow doctors to give lethal doses of drugs to terminally-ill patients - an issue that has been found to have a surprisingly broad measure of popular approval - perhaps it is time to reconsider the current plight of Dr. Kevorkian.

I met Kevorkian one warm fall morning in Michigan's Macomb County. Ironically, my brother and I had just stepped out the front door of a funeral parlor across the street when I spotted the infamous physician proselytizing outside a post office.

Kevorkian, who has since admitted being involved in the suicides of at least 130 "patients", mostly residents of Michigan, had been acquitted of murder on numerous occasions until April 13, 1999 when he was convicted of 2nd degree murder and delivery of a controlled substance and sentence to 10-25 years in prison. He is currently serving that sentence in Michigan's Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer and won't be eligible for parole until at least
June, 2007.

In America we usually seem to find ways to tolerate almost any enterprise once its advantage to the public has been "redefined" and been made palatable by smooth-talking PR hucksters.

In 1991, the first Bush administration hired PR firm Hill and Knowlton to promote the Gulf War. H & K immediately fabricated the story of Iraqi soldiers dumping Kuwaiti children out of hospital incubators, and managed to get the story before Congress. Even Amnesty International was suckered. The main "witness", Nayirah, was later revealed as the daughter of Sheik Saud Nasir Al-Sabah, Kuwait's Ambassador to America. Turns out that Hill and Knowlton had been paid $11 million to sell Americans the war and made the whole thing up.

We give generous tax breaks and federal subsidies to nicotine peddlers, casino operators (not to mention giant oil companies and military contractors), whose activities have been known to wreak havoc on the lives of thousands of Americans every year; and we do it without much public scrutiny.

In an endeavor where there is the dual promise of both profitability and growth, a properly packaged and politically correct Jack Kevorkian might have raked in huge profits by exploiting certain issues instead of becoming the issue himself.

With a steady clientele of tortured humanity thanks, in part, to the erosion of affordable health care in this country, an influx of illegal immigrants, a downward spiral of wages, and a world population that has more than doubled in size since 1960 and promises to double again by 2080; Kevorkian could have fared much better had he fired loudmouth attorney and future Michigan gubernatorial candidate Jeffrey Feiger and spent his legal fees creating for himself a kinder, gentler, Madison Avenue-manufactured facade.

In the late 60's, like many other patriotic Americans, I enlisted in the U.S. Army after a charismatic recruiter told me that communism was a threat to America and needed to be beaten back in South Vietnam. More recently, both Congress and the American public signed on to the Bush Administration's now thoroughly debunked "weapons of mass destruction" and "mushroom cloud" PR arguments for the war in Iraq.

But the man that I met that day in Mt. Clemens was, in fact, more the antithesis of those deadly death merchandisers than representative of them; not surprising given TV journalism's penchant for the superficial.

Graying, thin, slightly stooped, and wearing a very modest button-down light blue sweater; he smiled and cheerfully conversed with all of those, and there were many, who stopped to shake his hand. He laughed good-humoredly when I told him that he was the first person that I saw when I walked out of the funeral parlor across the street and that I hoped it wasn't an ominous harbinger of things to come.

His voice was soft and he smiled often as we talked about the unseasonably warm weather. He made a comment to the effect that maybe his old VW van would run a little longer if the weather held up. Afterward I shook his hand and started to walk away.

"Hey, just a second," he said, catching up to me. "I almost forgot this." He handed me a clipboard that he'd been holding. It contained a petition asking for the question of physician assisted suicide to be placed on a statewide ballot later that year so that voters could offer their opinion on the matter.

Squinting against the bright sunlight, I signed the petition. "Good luck," I said, returning his clipboard.

Voters in Oregon have twice endorsed the law letting doctors prescribe medicine to help sick patients end their lives, and it is ironic, indeed, that the Bush administration's argument before the Court was that hastening someone's death is an improper use of medication and violates federal drug laws. The very same team that has sent thousands of innocents here and abroad to their premature deaths - something that not a single one of them ever asked for help in doing - claims that politicians, not doctors, are the more capable of making such decisions.

As for prisoner number 1709604T, he now languishes behind bars with nothing to show for his efforts to get doctors involved in what is perhaps the most difficult decision a person has to make in his entire life, to help people die with dignity, or for his long crusade for a studied discussion of a doctor's role in ending human misery, not inflicting it.

He's a modern enigma; someone who could have used the advice of the likes of those who successfully sell battlefield glory to high school kids in video games, and wars in the halls of Congress and in homes across America.
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Mark McVay has lived and taught school in Oregon, Michigan, California, and Colorado. He is a Vietnam veteran and served in the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in South Vietnam in 1969-70. His wife is a retired USMC officer. McVay's writing has (more...)

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