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'Dr. Death,' Dead at Age 83

"Right-to-die" crusader Dr. Jack Kevorkian has died, apparently of natural causes:

Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the central figure in the tumultuous national drama surrounding assisted suicide, died Friday in a Michigan hospital. He was 83 and lived in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

The cause of his death was not immediately known, but local media reported that he had suffered from kidney and respiratory problems and that his condition had been worsening in recent days. His death was confirmed by Geoffrey Feiger, the lawyer who represented him during several of his trials in the 1990s.

Dr. Kevorkian, a medical pathologist, challenged social taboos about disease and dying, willfully defied prosecutors and the courts, actively sought national celebrity, and spent eight years in prison after being convicted of second-degree murder in the death of the last of the more than 100 terminally ill patients whose lives he helped end.

From June 1990, when he assisted in the first suicide, until March 1999, when he was sentenced to serve 10 to 25 years in a maximum security prison, Dr. Kevorkian was a controversial figure. But his critics and supporters generally agree on this: As a result of his stubborn and often intemperate advocacy for the right of the terminally ill to choose how they die, hospice care has boomed in the United States, and physicians have become more sympathetic to their pain and more willing to prescribe medication to relieve it.

Physician-assisted suicide is a thorny topic; questions of life, death, and law often stir passions and debate.  One of the more compelling perspectives I've read on the question comes from Dr. Herbert Hendin, a medial doctor and a professor of pyschiatry at New York Medical College.  In 2004 Hendin chronicled his participation in an exhaustive study of the Netherlands' legalized assisted suicide regime.  He concluded that it was fraught with moral and ethical problems, some of which are deeply troubling:

What happens to autonomy and compassion when assisted suicide and euthanasia are legally practiced? The Netherlands, the only country in which assisted suicide and euthanasia have had legal sanction for two decades, provides the best laboratory to help us evaluate what they mean in actuality. The Dutch experience served as a stimulus for an assisted-suicide law in Oregon--the one U.S. state to sanction it.

I was one of a few foreign researchers who had the opportunity to extensively study the situation in the Netherlands, discuss specific cases with leading Dutch practitioners and interview Dutch government-sponsored euthanasia researchers about their work. We all independently concluded that guidelines established by the Dutch for the practice of assisted suicide and euthanasia were consistently violated and could not be enforced. In the guidelines, a competent patient who has unrelievable suffering makes a voluntary request to a physician. The physician, before going forward, must consult with another physician and must report the case to the authorities.

Concern over charges of abuse led the Dutch government to undertake studies of the practice in 1990, 1995 and in 2001 in which physicians' anonymity was protected and they were given immunity for anything they revealed. Violations of the guidelines then became evident. Half of Dutch doctors feel free to suggest euthanasia to their patients, which compromises the voluntariness of the process. Fifty percent of cases were not reported, which made regulation impossible. The most alarming concern has been the documentation of several thousand cases a year in which patients who have not given their consent have their lives ended by physicians. A quarter of physicians stated that they "terminated the lives of patients without an explicit request" from the patient. Another third of the physicians could conceive of doing so.

I'll leave you with the combative Dr. Kevorkian, in his own words:

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