Thursday, October 15, 2009

Is Kevorkian Violating Parole?

Eric John Sponheim at RighteousHarvest today uses the occasion of NPR's reporting from the last time the Dow got over 10k to ask if Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the euthanasia advocate once called "Dr. Death," a title now belonging to Australia's Dr. Philip "Suicide Test Kit" Nitschke, is violating the terms of his parole by speaking about assisted suicide:

In recent months, he has begun to flirt with violations of a condition of his parole requiring him to refrain from commenting publicly on issues involving assisted suicide. One wonders what types of internal discussions parole authorities in Michigan are having about this, particularly after Kevorkian addressed a sold-out audience at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania in September.

It's a timely question, he states, because the issue of assisted suicide is everywhere. As proof of the ubiquity of the issue, Sponheim cites an article by Paul Walsh in today's Minneapolis Star Tribute on the revocation of the license of a male nurse who participated in "suicide chat rooms":

Using the online aliases "Li Dao'' and "Falcon Girl,'' a male nurse from southern Minnesota participated in international suicide chat rooms and presented himself as an expert in suicide techniques, according to documents compiled by the Minnesota Board of Nursing. At least two people using those chat rooms ultimately did commit suicide.

In an order made public this week, the board said it has concluded a months-long investigation of the man's behavior and revoked his nursing license.

Sponheim is correct in noting the nurse's case as an example of the heightened alarm being cast in the media concerning "assisted suicide." The term has come to be used for a number of various scenarios which demonstrate it's prevalence in the discussions concerning end of life issues, health care reform, and the status of Death with Dignity bills in US states. The problem is with conflation of these varied scenarios under one term, "assisted suicide."

Kevorkian is currently being used as a straw man by opponents to aid in dying. He represents an unregulated form of life-ending practices that have little to do with what Death with Dignity advocates are working for. Death with Dignity, as legal in Oregon and Washington, is reserved for those who are terminally ill, mentally competent, and able to self-administer lethal drugs. The bills actually protect doctors from prosecution for prescribing the lethal medication.

Aid in dying advocates wish to stay far away from Kevorkian, a proponent of assisting terminal or disabled patients who wish to die by administering injections or pills for that purpose. His seemingly slap-dash manner of determining the mental competence of patients and administering the lethal drugs himself flies in the face of what aid in dying advocates hope to legalize. And his practices only inflate opponents concerns over depression, sanctity of life, quality of life, and state regulation issues.

The distinctions between what Kevorkian stands for and the contemporary aid in dying movement may seem inconsequential - that's what opponents want you to think - but they are direly important. The former is the practice of helping patients in crisis end their life regardless of government regulation, the latter is a movement to ensure that those suffering at end of life have a regulated, legal choice in how they die.

Most succinctly, the difference between Kevorkian and the aid in dying movement is not necessarily philosophical but sustainable. The legalization - and regulation - of Death with Dignity tends to elevate end of life care, as studies from Oregon show. Kevorkian's practice only inflames opponents and leads to law suits, an end that does little for those facing the end of life without legal options.

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