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Medicine can keep us alive, but we still should have the right to die

Sep 9, 2014

Two days ago, my eyes fell on a poignantly written column by a gallant woman who I felt I knew, though we’ve never met.

Sherri Muzher lives in the downriver Detroit suburb of Woodhaven.

She has multiple sclerosis, as do perhaps 400,000 other Americans. She is intellectually vibrant and only 44, but her disease is advancing quickly, and she knows it.

There isn’t any hope that she’ll get better, and she bravely accepts that, but she wants to make a contribution to humanity.

She wants the right to end her life when ready, and then donate her organs to help others. In an eloquent essay in the Detroit Free Press, words typed by her caregivers, she wrote:

"When Dr. Jack Kevorkian helped terminally ill people end their suffering, he was rightfully concerned about ending the agony. What I’m suggesting goes a step further and allows a dying person to voluntarily enter into a hospital and end the agony while also saving the lives of others."

Ironically, that’s actually what the infamous Dr. Kevorkian originally wanted too.

Jack Kevorkian.
Credit UCLA

I knew him very well 20 years ago, when he was a national household word. Kevorkian became famous for helping not only terminally ill, but hopelessly suffering people end their lives, in defiance of the law.

He too saw this as a potential huge source of organ donation to save other lives. Originally, he had a highly responsible plan for how physician-assisted suicide should be regulated.

Patients were to be examined by five doctors, including a psychiatrist. There were to be safeguards against anybody improperly coercing someone to do themselves in.

Despite furious resistance from the authorities, Kevorkian became a hero to the hopelessly suffering, more than a 100 of whom he helped die.

Juries refused to convict him.

Eventually, however, Kevorkian’s out-of-control ego, desire for attention, and self-destructive impulses did him in. He became more and more reckless. Then, he insisted on moving from suicide to euthanasia, taunted the authorities, and ended up in prison.

For a brief time in the late 1990s, helping people like Sherri Muzher die was de facto legal in Michigan, but Kevorkian, the man who made it all possible, managed to destroy that too.

Kevorkian is dead now, and the so-called Right to Die movement in Michigan is mostly underground and at a low ebb. Five other mostly small states have made physician-assisted suicide legal for the terminally ill, but make no provision for organ donation.

All of which seems a terrible waste.

Jack Kevorkian was equal parts obnoxious crank and far-seeing genius, but the brilliant part of him said a couple things to me that I’ll always remember.

One was that if we live long enough, we all will end up essentially disabled. Another was that medicine now has the ability to keep us technically alive long after we have lost any quality of life.

Sherri Muzher is an attorney as well as a writer. She is mentally sound and has been living with her disease for 17 years. I can see no reason apart from religious prejudice to deny her a wish that really should be a fundamental right.

I wonder if our society will ever become as rational as she.