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  Ethics Matters

"Dr. Kevorkian's Latest Release: Death, Crimes and Videotape"

by Jeffrey P. Kahn, Ph.D., M.P.H.
Director, Center for Bioethics
University of Minnesota

Since Dr. Jack Kevorkian admitted on national television to performing euthanasia , the debate about assisted death has received renewed attention. But to credit renewed discussion to Dr. Kevorkian is to encourage his irresponsible behavior. In fact, debate about his decisions to videotape the death and to subsequently appear on 60 Minutes threatens to overshadow any meaningful national policy discussion of assisted death. The irony is that national policy debate is Dr. Kevorkian's stated goal for having assisted or carried out the deaths of over seventy people.

Center for Bioethics

What's your opinion?
Engaging in a national debate

Dr. Kevorkian is right in arguing that we need a national debate, but it is a debate that is already taking place. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on the constitutionality of assisted suicide, recognizing individual interests in deciding how, rather than whether, they will die. In their decision, however, the justices ruled that those individual interests are outweighed by society's need to prevent abuse of assisted suicide.

But in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's decision, many have argued that we must do better for people who need help to exercise their decisions about how they will die. It is true, as critics of assisted suicide say, that patients have the right to refuse life-sustaining treatment and to sufficient pain relief. Neither of these should be given up in a rush to embrace assisted suicide. But in cases where there is no treatment to refuse and adequate pain relief cannot be achieved--and there will be such cases--individuals deserve to determine how they will cross the threshold between life and death.

A majority of Americans favor the individual right to assisted suicide -- depending on the poll, anywhere from just over 50 percent to 70 percent. Because the Court's decision has effectively shifted the debate from the federal courts to the states, now members of the public should have a chance to exercise their voices.

Oregon: the death state?

Letting legislatures grapple with this issue allows states the opportunity to act as laboratories of the democratic process but adds its own complications. Oregon has already become the first state to legalize assisted suicide, and only strict residency rules in their law have prevented an influx of patients wanting assistance in death.

As more states follow Oregon's lead, states will be categorized into those that will allow assisted suicide and those that will not. Patients will be forced to travel, to leave behind their loved ones, their physicians and all the rest of the people, places and things they should have around them as they cross the threshold between life and death.

Those too frail or sick to travel will be barred from exercising their rights, thus those who most need to seek assistance are barred from it. Also, a situation is created where a right is enjoyed or withheld by no more than a function of geography.

The messenger shoots himself in the foot

The debate about assisted death will not be over soon, and will and should take place at both the state and national levels. But instead of encouraging and informing that debate, behavior like Dr. Kevorkian's forces the legal system to render premature judgments about issues that are largely undecided. Any court proceeding against Dr. Kevorkian for engaging in euthanasia is sure to turn attention away from the debate around assisted death and squarely onto Dr. Kevorkian himself. His is a case of the messenger confusing himself with the message, and in the process undermining the very interests he claims to promote-those of people who face unacceptably painful deaths.

Is Dr. Kevorkian is helping or hindering the debate about assisted death?
Post your opinion here.

Visit the
"Ethics Matters" Archive
where you'll find other columns from Jeffrey Kahn
on a wide range of bioethics topics.

"Ethics Matters" is a biweekly feature from the
Center for Bioethics and CNN Interactive.

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