For years, I covered the assisted suicide crusade of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who became internationally famous in the 1990s. Today, we tend to remember his outlandish antics –his bizarre suicide machine; the battered Volkswagen van, and the strange Mutt and Jeff combination of the wacky aged physician and a young, brash, and outrageous Geoffrey Fieger.
But we tend to forget that Kevorkian was fulfilling a need. Medical science can now prolong people’s existence far beyond the point when they have any quality of life.
People were being made to endure horrific suffering with no possibility of relief. Others just wanted to be freed from the prison of lives that no longer held any promise of happiness.
I met some of Kevorkian’s patients before they died. They were sane, rational and frequently eloquent. Kevorkian had a long series of assisted suicide trials, all of which resulted in acquittals, including one in which the jury foreman was a Methodist bishop. The jurors in those trials believed competent adults had the right to end their own suffering.
Members of some fundamentalist religions, however, do not want people to have that right. Kevorkian, whose courtroom successes made what he did de facto legal in the Michigan, then sabotaged everything he had accomplished by firing his lawyer, committing euthanasia, and demanding authorities come after him. They did, and he went to prison.
But since then, several states have made it legal for doctors to prescribe medicines for terminally ill patients to end their lives, and it has become common for adults who do not want their lives unnecessarily prolonged to sign “do not resuscitate” orders.
There are those, however, who are against even that – and there are now bills in both the state house and senate that would severely limit this right. I was alerted to this by Dr. Jeffrey Byrnes at Grand Valley State University, a clinical ethicist with Spectrum Health systems.
House Bills 5075 and 5076 and SB 597, are being sponsored and pushed by the religious right, primarily Right to Life of Michigan. They are billed as being written to stop abuses, to stop hospitals and doctors from forcing people to die without their consent.
But that’s not what’s really happening. As Dr. Byrnes put it, “Such a bill would allow for a family member – even a family member who had no real concern for their relative’s wishes or well-being – to keep the patient alive for an indefinite period of time.
“The cost would be astronomical, the harms to the patient equally great,” he said.
True, there may be some possibility of abuse today. But he said, “Medical cases in these situations are immensely complicated and can’t be addressed by the simplistic wording” in these bills. He told me they would “stop doctors and hospitals and clinical ethicists like myself from being able to stop treatment.”
In short, he said, they would “make us keep everyone alive.” An effort is being made to fast-track these bills to shove them through before people are really aware of what is happening. Many of us want some element of control over our final destiny, and have no desire to be forcibly kept alive in a permanent vegetative state.
Let’s hope these bills get the careful public scrutiny they -- and we -- deserve.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Dr. Byrnes wishes to make clear that his views are his own and not those of Spectrum Health
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.