Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Legacy of Jack Kevorkian.

Lewis M. Cohen at HuffPo on the legacy of Jack Kevorkian:

While there's little doubt that he has been a galvanizing figure on both sides of the right to die movement, when it comes to his actual role in alleviating suffering, the reality is far murkier. Kevorkian's legacy has long threatened the ongoing and truly compassionate efforts of hospice and palliative medicine, a medical specialty that focuses on symptom and pain management for the terminally ill. Over the past decade, widespread acceptance of palliative care has contributed to a dramatic change in how people die. Even in America's intensive care units -- our country's most medically aggressive settings -- more than three-quarters of an estimated 400,000 deaths are now preceded by treatment limitation decisions. In 2008, 1.45 million Americans died while making use of hospice services, and according to Dr. Steven Miles, a Professor of Medicine at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota, fully eighty-five percent -- or approximately two million -- of the 2.4 million deaths occurring annually in the United States medical system are preceded by a structured decision to limit life-sustaining treatment. Throughout the nation it is now both legal and ethical for people to refuse to initiate or to discontinue life-support treatments.

Far from being their leader, palliative care practitioners consider Kevorkian to be a dangerous distraction. Yet despite this disavowal, palliative care is sometimes maligned -- primarily by a coalition of sanctity of life and anti-euthanasia organizations -- because of the legacy of Dr. Death. In the early 1990s, Kevorkian came to the public's attention after retiring from his profession as a pathologist -- a doctor who provided no clinical care, but instead performed autopsies on the dead -- to become a physician-assisted suicide activist. However, in a notorious broadcast of the CBS program, 60 Minutes, Kevorkian showed the world that he had shifted from physician-assisted suicide to active, voluntary euthanasia -- injecting a patient suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease with a fatal combination of three medicines -- a crime for which he received an eleven to twenty year sentence for second-degree murder.

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