Suicide, Physician-Assisted

Suicide, Physician-Assisted

by Rubel Shelly

Published in LoveLines (Sept. 4, 1996)

Doctors Must Not Be Executioners

The man who bills himself as the intellectual heir to Thoreau, Einstein, Susan B. Anthony, and Martin Luther King Jr. has been pursuing his passion again. In the space of eight days, Jack Kevorkian has euthanized his 35th, 36th, 37th, and 38th patients. Or were they his victims?

About the first of these, even Kevorkian admits to having second thoughts. Judith Curren was a 42-year-old registered nurse who suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia ó neither of which is a fatal disease. Three weeks prior to her death in the presence of Kevorkian and Currenís husband, it was disclosed that her husband was charged with assaulting her only three weeks before.

"We try to guard against things like this," said Kevorkian the day after her death. "We always ask all the patients three questions ó we have them right on the forms I use. We ask them whether there is any trouble in the family, whether there are any squabbles over finances, and whether they have a will."

Is anybody listening to this guy? He gets less patient history on the people he puts to death than a competent physician gets on people whose kidneys she is considering replacing with a transplant! He asks three whole questions about the possibilities of stress or depression? Wow! He should share those insightful queries with the poor psychiatrists and psychologists who typically have to explore through multiple visits to get at such issues!

Jack Kevorkian might have a legitimate claim to the sort of importance he attaches to himself if he were competent or willing to participate in the serious study of such an important issue.

He is clearly unwilling. He curses ethicists and theologians for their concern with his practices. He has utter contempt for the law, for he has said, "Pass any law you want, I donít care."

Kevorkian is also unqualified. Although he has a medical degree, he has no clinical experience with patients; he is a retired pathologist. Examining tissue samples and blood chemistries of dead people hardly makes him qualified to be a one-man source of dispensing death to people whom he has barely met and whose pathologies he is in no position to diagnose.

Does the issue of euthanasia merit serious discussion? Absolutely. Is there a public clamor for a look at physician-assisted suicide? Yes. Do the laws governing such topics need revisiting in light of modern technologies and therapies? There can be no doubt of it.

What isnít needed is a one-man-above-the-discussion freelancer who goes around euthanizing people. A civilized nation that operates out of social consensus expressed in law cannot allow Dr. Quick Fix to be guilty of homicide with impunity. Physician-assisted suicide gives physicians too much power. Who is to know what really happened? What assurance is there that physician-assisted suicide will not become a convenient way to dispose of terminal patients who are frustrating their doctors? Who will regulate the practice?

Are these "scare-tactic objections" to the Kevorkian approach? Hardly! Holland has tolerated assisted suicide for a decade now. Many elderly persons there carry cards saying, "Please donít euthanize me." Some are afraid to go into hospitals for treatment they need for fear of being killed by the physicians in whose hands they will be powerless.

Dr. Deathís crusade sets the stage for destroying trust among physicians, patients, and patient families. When desperate people consult their doctors, they should receive truth, responsible medical treatment with recovery in view, and effective pain management if recovery is not a reasonable expectation.

Good doctors help their patients confront and deal with their fears. They do not add another potential fear ó the fear that they could become their patientsí executioners.

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