Doctor released from jail for assisting patients in suicide; was he kind or a killer?

Desire for death often prompted by depression


By Kyra Sherwood

When it comes to basic instincts, survival is among the strongest and most primal. Most people, given the chance, will fight tooth and nail to survive.

So when we hear about people who overrode that instinct and voluntarily gave up their lives, we can reach two logical conclusions: Either they made extraordinary sacrifices for some cause or person outside themselves, or something inside their brains went seriously wrong.

And when we hear about the 130 known patients Jack Kevorkian helped to die over his career as one of the world’s most well-known practitioners of physician-assisted suicide, or the almost 300 under the Death With Dignity Act in Oregon, are we really supposed to believe that these patients made free and rational choices to end their lives?

Proponents of legalized physician-assisted suicide present it as a reasonable and compassionate way to help terminally ill people die with dignity and autonomy, without pain.

It might be, if all that were true.

But because of improving hospice care and pain management, dying patients don’t have to suffer unbearable pain – and it isn’t even the primary reason people request physician-assisted suicide. Only about 20 percent of the patients who died under Oregon’s law listed inadequate pain control as a chief reason in their requests.

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They’re not always terminally ill, either. Oregon doesn’t require autopsies for people who die from physician-assisted suicide, so there’s no way of knowing for sure whether the patients were even sick, and the law doesn’t allow investigations into the way doctors determine their patients’ life expectancy in the first place. Autopsies of 69 of Kevorkian’s patients, however, revealed that only 16 were terminally ill, 48 were sick with nonterminal diseases and five showed no evidence of disease at all.

Guess which nonterminal disease produces the most suicides?

Depression does.

Oregon’s law prohibits physician-assisted suicide for psychological disorders like depression, but just like the other guidelines in place to prevent abuse, this rule isn’t always followed. Studies show that just 19 of 204 assisted-suicide patients who died in Oregon between 2000 and 2005 were referred to a psychiatrist, and 50 percent of those killed under similar laws in the Netherlands were probably suffering from depression.

When depression rules your thinking, it makes your choices for you. It says there’s no hope, ever; it calls you worthless and whispers that you don’t want to be a burden, do you? Suicide becomes the rational solution.

Autonomy? Hardly.

But Kevorkian, released from jail June 1, will promote it as such – and depression will make sure people believe him.

Kevorkian risked career to give patients peace


By Teresa Combs

Abortion, death penalty, stem cell research and euthanasia: We love our moral battles, and we love to fight them fiercely. Religious convictions stand as the self-proclaimed moral ground for defending the evils of these choices, without much consideration given to the individual problems in each scenario.

Jack Kevorkian was recently released from prison after serving 10 years for aiding Thomas Youk in his suicide. Youk suffered from the debilitating Lou Gehrig’s disease. People like Youk, who are crippled by horrific illnesses, will find some way to end their lives if they want to. They should not suffer unfairly because of some warped idea of the sanctity of life. Life is not such, if its owner is unable to live it freely and happily. It is not much different than a living will. A person can be in a vegetative state and have it declared in legal documentation the wish to have “the plug pulled.” The only difference is that Youk had an explicit, real-time voice to speak his desire.

Family members of other Kevorkian clients are either relieved or angry. For some, it is a grateful relief that their loved ones are no longer in pain. Others claim they knew their family member’s story better. “Her thing was depression,” Tina Allerellie claimed. Yet Tina was not her sister Karen, nor was she experiencing the emotional trauma the multiple-sclerosis paralytic experienced. Karen’s choice was her own – not her family’s, nor society’s. If she had the ability to give herself a peaceful ending, she would have found it. Instead, she sought the safety and knowledge of a trained doctor who was compassionate enough to risk his career for her and many more. I believe the most tragic part of her story is that Karen could not find solace in her family during her final moments.

We give drugs and treatments to people who may not survive. People may choose to not have treatment at all, which ultimately leads to the inevitable. When they pass that point, when there is no hope, and they have come to terms with it, why should they be forced to wait for a possibly painful and horrible death?

We can’t speak for people who want to die and are in pain we can’t comprehend by telling them they are wrong, but in our free-market, democratic society we should not take away the power of those who want to help them.