Endings and Beginnings: Law, Medicine, and Society in Assisted Life and Death

By Larry I. Palmer | Go to book overview

text in which Kevorkian's fifth trial took place. Although initially charged with both murder and assisting suicide, the prosecutor eventually chose only the murder charge. This tactic led the judge to greatly restrict the kinds of evidence Kevorkian was allowed to present in a trial where he represented himself. A guilty verdict was a more possible outcome, but by no means assured. Kevorkian is not simply one defrocked physician challenging the medical establishment and law; he wears the mantle of science and its implicit promise to eliminate human suffering through application of its technologies. Jurors, like most people, fear that modern medicine has forgotten that our termination appears to be in the hands of physicians, particularly as greater longevity increases the possibility of chronic conditions for everyone. These statutory changes, along with an apparent shift in public attitudes, led a jury to convict Kevorkian of murder in March 1999.


CONCLUSION

Kevorkian's many encounters with the legal system reveal how much the model of acute illness dominates our thinking about public policy and the role of law in medicine. Medicine's function is to "cure" either through drugs, surgery, organ transplantation or transfer to hospice for "comfort care" in dying. The many chronic sufferers, especially as life expectancy increases, who need physician assistance in managing their lives, raise a special challenge to the image of the autonomous physician who cannot "control" whether the patient takes prescribed medication or follows dietary restrictions. It also raises the question of how to recognize the signs of distress which require physician rather than patient intervention.

It is now becoming clear even to the media what was apparent in Kevorkian's earliest obscure writings. Kevorkian does not, however, seek the legalization of certain physician-patient agreements to end the patient's life, but rather the restructuring of the relationship of law and medicine. He further seeks the establishment of suicide clinics to allow painless deaths to become social benefits. Having lived long or short lives by eating the fruits of medical research, he proposes people should give back to science their own bodies when their time is near by a signed or videotaped agreement with their physician.


NOTES
1.
John Irving, The World According to Garp ( New York: The Modern Library, 1998), 688.
2.
Jack Kevorkian, Prescription Medicide: The Goodness of Planned Death ( Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1991), 254.

-65-

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