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'Dr. Death's' dark legacy.

Byline: The Register-Guard

With his knack for self-promotion and his flair for feeding the public's appetite for the macabre, Jack Kevorkian made his gaunt features the face of physician-assisted suicide for a quarter century. He served his cause poorly, as is shown by the fact that only three states, including Oregon, allow physician-assisted suicide in any form. Kevorkian died of natural causes last Friday at age 83, and now the nation can begin a conversation about the end of life without the funhouse-mirror distortions introduced by "Dr. Death's" presence.

Kevorkian, a former pathologist, claimed to have helped 130 people end their lives. The Detroit Free Press investigated some of those deaths in 1997, and found that 60 percent of Kevorkian's "patients" were not terminally ill.

That couldn't happen in Oregon, where voters approved assisted suicide in 1994 and reaffirmed their support in 1997. Oregon's law includes a careful set of checks and balances. Patients must request life-ending medications twice, with a 15-day waiting period between requests. The requests must be given to a physician in writing, and with two witnesses. Patients must be advised of alternatives such as comfort care and pain control. A psychiatric examination may be required. Euthanasia is not permitted - lethal medications must be self-administered.

Kevorkian was critical of Oregon's law as being overly restrictive.

Yet it is Kevorkian and his "suicide machine," not Oregon's law with its careful limitations, that became the dominant image of assisted suicide. While Oregon's law brings end-of-life decisions into the open in a controlled setting, Kevorkian presented suicide as an absolute civil right. His anything-goes attitude ultimately led to a conviction for second-degree murder and eight years in prison.

None of the gruesome consequences predicted when Oregonians approved their assisted suicide law have come to pass. The number of assisted suicides has climbed slowly, but has never exceeded 60. Oregon doesn't have a "Dr. Death" - the 95 prescriptions written for lethal medications in 2009 were written by 55 doctors (about a third of the prescriptions go unused). There is no evidence of relatives or physicians pushing elderly patients to choose a premature death. Oregon has not become a destination from terminally ill people from around the country. Assisted suicide has proven to be a rare option, freely chosen and carefully advised. It does not comport with Kevorkian's vision of widespread "medicide."

Brian Dickerson, a Detroit Free Press writer, recalled that Kevorkian's practice of assisted suicide involved a degree of "zeal" and "unseemly haste." Both qualities are absent from Oregon's law, and neither has a place in discussions of assisted suicide. With Kevorkian no longer dominating the stage, the issue can be examined without the element of creepy enthusiasm that he consistently provided.
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Title Annotation:Editorials and Letters
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Geographic Code:1U9OR
Date:Jun 7, 2011
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