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Sunday, Oct 20, 2019

Pulling the plug on your life, Dr Death

"Is this the face of a killer?” Jack Kevorkian, the assisted-suicide champion, better known as ‘Dr Death’ for helping more than 100 terminally-ill people end their lives died on Friday at the age of 83 in a Michigan hospital. Sanchita Sharma writes.

health-and-fitness Updated: Jun 04, 2011 22:27 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times

"Is this the face of a killer?” The legend runs across Al Pacino’s forehead in the promo for the 2010 television film, You Don’t Know Jack. Directed by Barry Levinson, the film won Pacino an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild award this year for his role as Jack Kevorkian, the assisted-suicide champion, better known as ‘Dr Death’ for helping more than 100 terminally-ill people end their lives.

Kervokian died on Friday at the age of 83 in a Michigan hospital, where he was being treated for kidney and heart disease.

Unlike the many people he helped let die, he did not take his own life, assisted or otherwise. He died of natural causes, from a blood clot that lodged in his heart and stopped it.

A pathologist by training, Kevorkian polarised debate over assisted suicide in the 1990s by driving across Michigan in an old Volkswagen van with a machine to help people with incurable diseases to die. Some called him a hero for helping people in pain to die with dignity, others shunned him as a killer who preyed on those suffering from chronic pain and depression.

Kevorkian argued that when doctors could help people coming into the world, there was nothing wrong in helping them leave it. There is a certain warped logic in his argument.

If it wasn’t for caesarean sections and hi-tech paediatric ICUs that help premature babies as young as 22 weeks — a full-term baby is 38-40 weeks — live, the earth would be far less populated. Ditto for new drugs, implants, surgeries and technology that help millions live far beyond their natural lifespan.

So, the argument goes, what is the harm in pulling the plug on somebody with no hope of getting better, ever.

I’m all for the right to life, but if living means lying hooked to lifesupport forever, I’d rather someone pulled the plug on me. Boredom would have killed me long before any doctor could.

The Supreme Court’s nod to “passive” euthanasia under exceptional circumstances in March this year made no difference to Aruna Shanbaug’s — who’s been in a vegetative state since 1973 — life, it has opened doors for others.

Passive euthanasia involves withdrawing medical support with the intention of causing death. For example, if a person needs a ventilator to breathe, the doctors simply disconnect the machine. This is widely different from voluntary active euthanasia — or the Kevorkian model of assisted suicide — where death occurs from use of lethal substances with the consent of the patient.

Euthanasia with consent is legal in Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the US states of Oregon and Washington.

Supporters of active euthanasia want it made legal for those with terminal illness, but not for people with a disability, extreme pain or those with a non-terminal degenerative disorder, such as dementia.

They insist relief from insurmountable suffering as opposed to preserving life should be the primary goal of medicine.

Instead of prolonging one life indefinitely with no hope for recovery, said one doctor at a busy public hospital, the medical facilities and time can be used to save hundreds of other lives.

Assisted-suicide has drawbacks — such as greedy family and friends making life so unbearable that you choose death — but laws providing safeguards can ensure the right to life is protected, even if it means outlawing maverick do-gooders like Kevorkian.

First Published: Jun 04, 2011 22:23 IST

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