The Kevorkian Effect

To some, Dr. Jack Kevorkian is a hero, and to others he is a villain. But, no one can dispute that he brought the issues of end-of-life care and physician-assisted suicide into public debate.

According to this article from the Associated Press, he will be released from prison on June 1st after serving more than eight years of a 10-25 year sentence for the death of a Michigan man.

He used a machine he'd invented to administer fatal drugs and dropped off bodies at hospital emergency rooms or coroner's offices, or left them to be discovered in the motel rooms where he often met those who wanted his help.

At the time, some doctors didn't want to give dying patients too much pain medication, fearing they'd be accused of hastening death.

Kevorkian said that he would be happy to go to jail for his beliefs. But, what effect has he really had in the area of physician-assisted suicide? Up to this day, only one state, Oregon, has a law allowing physician assisted suicide.
Experts say that's because abortion opponents, Catholic leaders, advocates for the disabled and often doctors have fought the efforts of other states to follow the lead of Oregon, where the law took effect in late 1997.

Opponents defeated a measure in Vermont this year and are fighting similar efforts in California. Bills have failed in recent years in Hawaii, Wisconsin and Washington state, and ballot measures were defeated earlier by voters in Washington, California, Michigan and Maine.

I remember having pretty heated debates in my medical ethics classes while in college in the early 1990's. "Kevorkian" not only was a name, but also used as a verb - both positively and negatively - depending on which side of the debate you were on. Back then, predictions were made that a majority of the states would eventually have physician-assisted suicide laws.

As one looks back over the past 10 years or so, you have to ask yourself this question: What was the real effect of Jack Kevorkian? Personally, I think he did raise awareness of end-of-life issues - although in kind of shocking way.

But, did he really influence public policy? I guess that will be debatable for a long time. Some will say he is a failure because only one state has physician-assisted suicide legislation. Others will say that he indirectly influenced other legislation having do with end-of-life issues. We'll have to see how history ultimately judges Dr. Jack Kevorkian.