Jack “Dr. Death” Kevorkian Dies: Living Wills on the Agenda

Jack "Dr. Death" Kevorkian Dies: Living Wills on the Agenda“Dr. Death” is dead. Jack Kevorkian—the euthanasia enthusiast—passed away on Friday from natural causes.

The world’s most prominent advocate of assisted suicide, Kevorkian may have been a bit of a kook, a bit of a fame monger, but he also helped to shed a light on how much the elderly, terminally ill and chronically ill suffer towards the end of their lives, and he’s changed the way we think about and talk about death in this country. After becoming an end-of-life activist in the late 80′s, he helped to bring about a lot of improvements in palliative and hospice care in this U.S.–the kind that I can’t imagine too many people would object to, whatever their feelings about assisted suicide.

I don’t entirely agree with Kevorkian’s attitude about or approach to euthanasia, and my guess is that he was driven by idiosyncratic ambition (and perhaps his own demons–he was a man who seemed to be intent on depriving himself of many basic comforts) as much as by a desire to help the suffering. But his quest to get America thinking about end-of-life issues was an important one–and that we still have a long way to go. While there are many people who would say that anyone who commits euthanasia is mentally ill, those who protest too vehemently against it seem to have psychological hang-ups of their own.

Here in America, a place where there is relatively little real suffering, relatively little death, we’re terrified of dying that many of us stubbornly refuse to consider whether the life that is being preserved is a happy or even fully human one. The public fury and panic that arose after Sarah Palin’s misleading accusations about government “death panels” underscore America’s knee-jerk fear of death, and related reluctance to think about or discuss the issue in anything but a black-or-white manner. (How ironic, really, that the same people who think that abortion interferes with “God’s will” insist on the use of any medical means necessary to keep people alive until the very very end; even the roughly 30,000 Americans who are in persistent vegetative states, like Terry Schiavo was. These same “pro-lifers” are usually the ones who are more than happy to let humans “play God” by executing prisoners. But I digress … )

Palin’s “death panel” cries came after President Obama included a clause in his health care bill that would allow for the coverage of Medicare counseling about living wills. The nonsense spewed by Arizona’s most ballyhooed new resident had the effect of so much of Palin’s nonsense: It prevented any kind of interesting, nuanced or meaningful discussion of how we should be handling and thinking about end-of-life issues. President Obama responded by telling the country that he had a living will, and so did his wife, and that everyone in this country should have one drawn up in case of emergency—but that very sensible suggestion got completely drowned out by the “death panel” chants.

And meanwhile, studies have shown that as many as 55% U.S. deaths occur in health care facilities—and that care there is often unnecessarily prolonged, painful, expensive and emotionally torturous for patients and their loved ones. To give you some perspective: More than 1.4 million Americans need feeding tubes to survive. Yet surveys indicate that 70-95% of us would refuse aggressive medical treatment of that kind rather than stay alive in such miserable states.

(Incidentally, healthy family members are often excessively burdened by the wild financial and personal demands that medical preservation of life puts on them. One study found that 20% of them had to quit work in order to care for a helpless relative and 31% lost all of most of their savings–though nearly 100% had insurance.)

Meanwhile, nearly every state has a law that encourages its citizens to create a living will—and nearly 30% of Americans had written one up by 2010 … though most of them were so vague as to be insufficient.

How much money might we save, as a country, if we all simply wrote up clear and detailed living wills? That’s tough to estimate, but surely, overall health insurance costs would go down substantially. How much agony would we save? Probably a lot more than the amount we think we’re avoiding by insisting on life at all costs. How much more psychologically equipped would we be to consider and face the deaths of our loved ones, as well as our own? A lot.

More Faster Love and Death:

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Maura Kelly is working on a book about what literature can teach you about relating, mating and Internet dating; Much Ado About Loving will be out next year from Free Press. She lives in New York City ...read more

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