Saturday, June 4, 2011

So Long, Jack.

Jack Kevorkian is dead at the age of 83. News came in yesterday and it's taken me a little while to sum up what, if anything, I have to say about it. The media's dream, the assisted suicide movement's nightmare, Kevorkian cornered the national conversation about death. And it's hard to knock anyone who gets us talking about death. As I often write, we're in a national (and international) health care crisis. The world's population is quickly growing older, subject to medical systems and structures that are woefully unprepared for the increasing needs of this population. Our national economy will shortly be brought to a halt if meaningful health care reform isn't enacted. (No, I don't mean Obamacare. I mean real reform.) And increasingly, elders are not dying the way they want to.

While Kevorkian brought this conversation to prime time -- and everybody has an opinion on Jack Kevorkian -- and while he did it without the horrifying saccharine sweet sentimentality that impedes the meaningfulness of such conversations, he erred by allowing himself to be portrayed as a cantankerous clown. He was too easy to paint as a quack, a cantankerous fanatic obsessed with death. If there's anything I've learned in my modest time writing about death (and religion), it's that tone and sound bites have more impact than facts. In a society that packs death off to nursing homes and hospitals, we desperately can't afford dismiss-able spokesmen who allow media to relegate the conversation to spectacle.

And there's no doubt that Kevorkian became a spectacle. Patients' rights don't mean much when reduced to snuff clips on 60 Minutes. So while I strongly believe in choice at the end of life -- and sympathize strongly with Kevorkian's mission -- and while we've seen three states adopt rational, helpful laws regarding patient's rights at the end of life since Kevorkian's rise to prominence, I don't think that the life and times of Dr. Death Kevorkian has really moved the nation or the assisted suicide movement ahead in the necessary grapple that is our impending health care crisis.

Still, may he rest in peace.

More on Kevorkian's death: From his Royal Oak neighbors. From Janice Van Dyck at HuffPo's Healthy Living. Icky monomaniacal Wesley Smith at National Review. Jeff Gerritt at Detroit Free Press. Tami Abdollah at AP gets it mostly wrong. Another AP story calls Kevorkian "audacious." UK's conservative BioEdge calls Kevorkian a "suicide hero." Christian Post focuses on Kevorkian's dismissal of religion. Religion Dispatches' Susan Henking gets stuck in the nomenclature, picks out how various religions discuss suicide (and cites Durkheim!) and divides the landscapes into two erroneously-named sides, "the right-to-life" and "right-to-death" movements.

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