Death in America

3 Jun

Dr. Kevorkian died today. Everyone knows him as “Dr. Death,” thanks to a Time Magazine cover branding him as such. Dr. Jack Kevorkian is the guy who helped people kill themselves.

Dr. Kevorkian was an advocate for assisted-suicide. It is believed that he assisted in over 130 suicides during the 1990’s. In 1999, he was accused of second-degree murder and sentenced to 10-25 years in prison for assisting in the suicide of Thomas Youk, a Lou Gehrig ’s disease sufferer. He served 8 of those years, and was released in 2007 on the condition that he never assist in another suicide.

Love him or hate him, he brought a lot of attention to the “right to death” campaign. He viewed death as a release, an easing of tension and pain. He required that his patients be terminally ill and that they express written consent for their wishes. He video-taped interviews with patients and their families and he demanded a one-month waiting period for patients to think about their decision. Currently, the only states in the nation to allow for assisted-suicide are Oregon, Washington and Montana.

To me, the right to death is inalienable. But, in America, death is feared and hated. There is “no honor” in suicide, even if it ends suffering, even if it prevents suffering. It is still death, and who are we to control such a weighty thing (I ask ironically)?

This brings me to the case of a poor woman with three children who induced a miscarriage, and is now facing prosecution for the “crime” that she committed. Jennie McCormack believed that she was 14 weeks pregnant. Ms. McCormack could not afford an abortion, so she asked her sister to purchase medication that would end her pregnancy. She induced a miscarriage (I refuse to use the sensationalized term “self-abortion”) and kept the body of the fetus in a box on her porch.

The connection between abortion and assisted-suicide may not be obvious, but to me, these causes are much the same.  Both involve the uncomfortable subject of death, either one’s own or of the fetus. Both causes are reviled by the religious-right.  Both causes involve a universal right: the right to control your own body.

The other theme of this post is desperation. People who are not desperate for abortions don’t self-induce. People who are not desperate for the release of death do not seek out a doctor to kill them. But many more stories like Ms. McCormack’s will crop up as abortion rights are restricted further and further, and suicides have not stopped despite the illegality of medical assistance.

What’s the deal, America? Is death that terrifying? Shouldn’t the goal be to reduce suffering and end pain instead of prolonging it or advancing suffering? Why are we “allowed” to control life, both naturally and artificially (i.e. – respirators, dialysis, etc.), but we are not allowed the dignity of control over death?  To me, compassion dictates that assisted-suicide access should be legal, easily available, affordable, clean and safe. Abortion should be nothing less. 

2 Responses to “Death in America”

  1. Dee June 3, 2011 at 2:27 pm #

    Thanks for posting this. I think Kevorkian’s work was of supreme importance, and it ties in with prochoice in that it boils down to control of one’s own body and quality of life. Even if forced birth does not physically kill me, it would devastate me psychologically and rob me of my quality of life. Even if antis dismiss this as “convenience”, this is MY LIFE, MY DREAMS that they’re so easily dismissing. Similarly, if I were suffering from some awful, debilitating disease, I should be the only one who decides whether I should continue to live with the pain. I would rather die than have a poor quality of life. Having seen my dad suffer and die of cancer, my biggest fear is that such an option will be unavailable to me if I’m ever that sick.

  2. Sophia June 4, 2011 at 1:16 am #

    I highly recommend the film “How to die in Oregon” for anyone curious about how assisted suicide works and why it has given so many families and souls that suffer peace. In many ways, deep in my heart, I feel assisted suicide for most people is a final gift, that they may die peacefully and end their pain. Excellent post, as always.

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