Dr. Jack Kevorkian left prison Friday after eight years -- more than one-tenth of his life -- for giving suffering, terminally ill people what was rightfully theirs.
Kevorkian's crime was to restore the right to self-determination that every state government with the exception of Oregon strips from its citizens.
The federal court system connives in this injustice by in effect turning a blind eye to the rights of American citizens. To no small extent, it does so because many Americans are themselves blind to the suffering in their midst and confused regarding what it means to do right by both the dying and the bereaved.
Each year, well over half a million Americans -- more than one every minute -- die from cancer. Despite advances in medical care and pain management, many of these people will leave this world in a crescendo of pain and suffering, not because of the intentional cruelty of their family, friends, or government, but because certain people have decided that in our final stage of life, you and I should no longer be allowed to manage our own affairs. In our time of greatest need for them, the crucial liberties in which we have for a lifetime prospered will be suddenly dissolved by the state, and we will be left at the mercy of whatever will kill us.
Our loved ones, who would gladly bear a portion of our suffering, will be overmatched onlookers faced with a Hobson's choice between giving and not giving drugs that on the one hand will relieve a portion -- but likely not all -- of our pain but on the other will obliterate any semblance of the person they have always known.
My father died from cancer nearly 10 years ago. A few memories of his final three days endure. One is that in these three days he did not have a single meaningful conversation with his wife, his three children, or anyone else. Cancer was around his spine and in his lungs, liver, abdominal cavity, and brain.
We gave him ice chips, offered him food, and administered painkiller. In all that time, he and I -- we liked and loved each other -- did not so much as exchange a meaningful glance. If he had a focus, it was inward, and the only expressions I heard from him were the groans and pleadings that gave voice to his pain. On the morning he died he lost control of his functions, so we cut him out of his bedclothes and redressed him, all the while hoping that he didn't know what was happening. He died with eyes shocked wide open as his chest heaved for air. He appeared more aware than he had in days.
Had my father lived in Oregon, he'd have had his freedom to call in a physician to help him die on his terms. Quite possibly he'd have declined to, but at least he'd have had his say. And the mere having this say, this power, might have given him some measure of comfort. Research shows that those who retain a physician to assist them to die often do not ultimately ask for their doctor's help, but that the knowledge that they can ask eases their minds.
Pain research shows that patients given pumps that allow them to administer their own dose often need less medication than those who lack these pumps. Being in control is intimately connected with our pleasure and pain. We humans crave it. It's freedom. There would seem to be added dignity in being able to take a measure of it right up to our graves.
People who oppose our freedom to retain a physician to ease our passing worry about this control issue. Some fear that the terminally ill will be pressured into an early death. This seems a legitimate concern, but one that can be managed through carefully crafted legislation. Others worry about "playing God." This, too, seems a legitimate concern. Human beings can be beautiful and generous, but also callous and prideful.
I think, however, that those who worry about playing God have misconstrued their situation. Human beings are often responsible for each other. Every day in our roles as parents, teachers, mechanics, doctors, drivers, etc., we "play God" to each other in a thousand ways, sometimes small, sometimes large. We can't get out of it. Playing God is the human condition.
So the question becomes, "What will you do with your power? What will you do with your say-so on this issue?" For many religious people, these questions entail another: "What would God do?"
The answer to this question would seem to be much as it is in the other matters of life: "Give the suffering their freedom. Let them choose how to responsibly comport themselves in their final days. Let them decide how to best reconcile their needs with those of the ones they love."
To do anything else would seem to risk an evil kind of god-playing, one that says, "We will rule you and your loved ones in life and in death."
I hope Jack Kevorkian enjoys his freedom and that all of us are allowed the freedoms that should be ours.
Tom McGlamery is a Verona resident.
© 2007 The Daily Camera