Workers Hammer No. 216
In honour of Dr Kevorkian
US fighter for the right to die with dignity
The following article is reprinted from Workers Vanguard no 984, 5 August 2011.
On 3 June, Dr Jack Kevorkian died of a pulmonary embolism in a Detroit-area hospital at the age of 83. Dr Kevorkian was widely known and often reviled for assisting those who were terminally ill to end their lives. He used a simple criterion to determine eligibility for his intervention: “The patient must be mentally competent, the disease incurable” (Independent, 11 November 1993).
Last year’s HBO movie, You Don’t Know Jack, compellingly presents the reality of those faced with a lingering death in this society — no resources, no hope and no foreseeable end to their pain and agony. Jack Kevorkian provided, within the limits of his abilities, an answer to their plight. People afflicted with painful, incurable diseases should have the right to determine how and when they die. Any doctor should be able to give them the help that he did.
Kevorkian acquired his nickname “Doctor Death” in the 1950s for advocating that death row prisoners have the right to volunteer for medical experiments that would result in their deaths. But it was not until the 1990s, when he began to provide terminally ill individuals with the medical means to end their lives, that religious fanatics and law enforcement officers used the moniker as a campaign slogan to hound him.
The forces of God and the capitalist state were determined to incarcerate Kevorkian and successfully lobbied for a 1993 Michigan law, aimed specifically at him, banning physician-assisted suicide. Nevertheless, he continued his efforts, and after several acquittals further attempts to try him under the law were abandoned. It was not until 1999 that Kevorkian was convicted of second-degree murder after he administered the fatal dosage to Thomas Youk, who was suffering from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). This was the first time Kevorkian had personally carried out such an act, having previously assisted in 130 suicides. The CBS news show 60 Minutes played a videotape of the procedure that was provided by Kevorkian, who wanted prosecutors to charge him in order to force the courts to take up the issue. Kevorkian believed that by pursuing his case in the courts he could obtain legal affirmation of the right to medically assisted suicide.
Kevorkian served eight years of the 10-to-25-year sentence, obtaining release in 2007 only after promising not to assist in any more suicides. His release was spurred in part by the revulsion of most Americans to the spectacle of Terri Schiavo as she lingered in a state of ongoing vegetative decay. A seven-year effort by Schiavo’s husband to end her maintenance on life support was stymied, until 2005, by the capitalist state in the service of the ghouls of the “right to life” movement. Kevorkian, after his release, continued the fight to allow the incurably ill the right to obtain such medical assistance as needed to end their lives.
His efforts have not been fruitless. He inspired the passage of laws allowing such assistance in Oregon and Washington, and more than 600 such suicides have been performed since these were enacted. It was largely in response to his attacks on the medical establishment’s callous indifference to the terminally ill that pain management became a hot issue. Programmes willing to employ a more generous use of potentially addictive analgesics to assist patients in agony were developed. But even these increments of progress have been fiercely opposed from the beginning by the powers that be.
The Lethal Drug Abuse Prevention Act, designed to overturn the Oregon law, was put before Congress in 1998. When that failed, an attempt was made to pass a more liberal-sounding version with the same purpose, the Pain Relief Promotion Act of 1999. That bill simply languished in the Senate, whose members were torn between appeasing the religious fanatics and offending the sentiments of most Americans, who think that people should have the right to end their pain and suffering.
The American Medical Association (AMA) quickly joined ranks with those opposing the Oregon law. AMA president Dr Thomas Reardon described a measure passed at its 1999 convention: “The AMA opposes physician-assisted suicide as it is antithetical to the role of the physician as healer. We are committed to providing the best possible end-of-life care. The Pain Relief Promotion Act supports both these goals.” In reality, both the 1998 and 1999 bills were designed to assure more pervasive Drug Enforcement Agency monitoring of pain medication and, thus, increase the misery of those in need.
Today, “right to life” forces have successfully pushed through bills in several states banning all abortions after 20 weeks’ gestation on phony “pain relief” grounds. Cast as redressing supposed foetal agony, the bills are in fact designed to maintain women as breeding stock for a creator who apparently requires a quite large harem. People should simply have the right to do whatever they wish with their bodies, whether it involves seeking pleasure, avoiding pain or ending an unwanted pregnancy.
While pain management of some merit now exists in places, the AMA’s pretence that pain medication is easily forthcoming, and that needed therapy for the distress and depression experienced by the terminally ill is likewise readily available, is simply crap. As before, a doctor who is moved to address a patient’s agony for the most part still must do so on the sly, fearing prosecution by the capitalist state for murder or drug dealing.
Death comes to all, but it is the capitalist order, the lifeblood of which is profit accumulation, and its perturbations that plunge the masses into misery and despair and threaten the ability of most to survive. The misery that order creates is today reflected in the attacks on funding for Medicaid, hospice care, home health care and food stamps, with further extensions of unemployment funds next to face the axe. And the Obama version of national medical care, like Bill Clinton’s earlier failed effort, is designed to cut such “unnecessary” costs as whatever decent wages and benefits unionised workers used to receive because they had wrested them from their bosses.
The bourgeois politicians, with religion as a prop, justify, defend and perpetuate this savagery. As we wrote in Workers Vanguard no 593 (4 February 1994) in the article “In Defense of Dr. Kevorkian”:
“The priests and preachers simply provide the ideological overlay to the interests of the rich, propertied few. To maintain their rule, they try to enforce their control over all aspects of the lives of the rest of us, from birth to death. Those with the money and the power believe that all good things exist only for them. It’s like the old joke where a British ‘noblewoman’ experiencing her first orgasm squeals in delight, ‘Ooh, this is much too good for the lower classes!’ In the case of life and death, the bourgeoisie has the bucks to buy the best medical care there is and, if that fails, the connections to check out when they want to. But allowing the ‘lower classes’ similar leeway might lead the exploited and oppressed to believe that they have the power to shape their own future — not only how they die, but more importantly how they live.”
The quest for the domination of the planet by the various imperialist powers necessitated two worldwide conflagrations that consumed many millions of lives. The imperialists continue to add millions of their victims to the sacrificial altars of their dominance. The capitalist order cannot be transformed to provide a world in which human life, worth and dignity count and where the wealth, resources and advanced medical technology are put in the service of the planet’s toiling masses. That transformation requires international working-class socialist revolution. Jack Kevorkian was not an advocate of such, but he was a fighter for the right of all to die with dignity. The Spartacist League, US section of the International Communist League, is proud to have defended him and to honour his memory.