Twenty years ago, before he was finally sent to prison, I asked Dr. Jack Kevorkian whether he thought physician-assisted suicide would ever be legal throughout America.
He told me yes, but not for the right reasons.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You are a baby boomer,” he said. “There’s 75 million of you. There are only about 17 million in the next generation. Do you think they are going to spend all their money to keep you hooked up to machines? They’ll make (assisted suicide) a sacrament!”
Well, Kevorkian, who I came to know very well in the course of covering his many trials, didn’t mince words. Dr. Death went to prison in 1999, which ended his personal crusade, and died five years ago. Assisted suicide hasn’t become legal in Michigan.
But it is legal now, in a limited way, for terminally ill residents of five states.
Michigan voters decisively rejected a bill allowing physician-assisted suicide in 1998, but that wasn’t much of a test. Those supporting the bill had no money. Those opposing it were well funded by religious groups, and Kevorkian himself opposed it, saying it didn’t go far enough.
Well, there hasn’t much discussion of physician-assisted suicide in Michigan since Kevorkian’s day. But earlier this month, two Lansing-area state representatives, both Democrats, introduced two bills that would legalize physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill Michigan residents, provided certain conditions were met.
These would include making sure the person wanting to die was sane, not doing it on a whim, and not being coerced to end it all. Now, these bills are going nowhere this year, as their sponsors, Tom Cochran and Sam Singh, must surely know.
They are both Democrats, and the Legislature is overwhelmingly controlled by Republicans, many of whom are funded by, or members of, the religious right.
But these bills are a reminder that the basic issue that spurred Kevorkian is still with us.
In many cases, medical science is able to keep people alive long after they cease to have any worthwhile quality of life. Many of these people want to die, an impulse that in their case is anything but irrational.
There may not be as much urgent need for assisted suicide as there was a quarter-century ago, when Jack Kevorkian was on the cover of national magazines.
Thanks in large part to Kevorkian, doctors have gotten much better about helping patients to manage their pain. The rise of the Hospice movement has made many folks’ last days far more bearable than they used to be.
But there are still millions who would gladly end their own lives with dignity if they legally could. And there are also heartbreaking stories one sees of the 91-year-old man who shoots his ailing wife and himself because he can no longer care for her.
There’s another interesting philosophical piece to this debate. Geoffrey Fieger, the lawyer who kept Kevorkian out of jail for years, is pro-choice on abortion rights.
But he always said assisted suicide ought to have been recognized as a right before abortion – since in the case of suicide, you are making a decision about your own life, not that of another potential being.
Regardless of what happens to these bills, you can bet this issue isn’t going away.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.