The Why Files The Why Files --

The new death

After 8 years behind bars...
Jack Kevorkian, 79, walked out of a Michigan prison on June 1. Known as "Dr. Death," for helping 130 severely ill people (his number) commit suicide, Kevorkian vowed to help legalize the procedure he had performed in the shadows. According to the Associated Press (June 5, 2007), Dr. K told a news conference, "My new mission is not assisted suicide. My work is effectively done there. ... I'll do what I can to have it legalized."

Grieving woman holds up photo of herself and her smiling sister. May 31, 2007: Tina Allerellie holds a picture of herself with her sister Karen Shoffstall, right, in Guelph, Ontario. Some relatives of people who died with Jack Kevorkian's help say his release from prison stirs up grief over the deaths of their loved ones. "It's like the wound that was starting to heal has been cut open again," said Allerellie, whose sister turned to Kevorkian in August 1997 after suffering for years with multiple sclerosis. Photo by: Nathan Denette, courtesy AP Photo/CP.

In 1998, Kevorkian was charged with murder for helping cause the death of a man suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease. This untreatable, incurable killer destroys nerves and suffocates its victims. Kevorkian would face a return to prison if he helps in another suicide.

The American way of confronting terminal illness has changed over the past 20 years, and Dr. Death deserves some credit for pushing the transition. No matter how gruesome his techniques or how outlaw his approach, he succeeded in putting the fears and needs of dying people on the front pages. In 1994 and 1997, during Kevorkian's heyday, Oregon twice voted to legalize assisted suicide. In Oregon, but no other state, physicians may prescribe (but not administer) deadly drugs to patients who have less than six months to live.

There have been other changes as well: pain control seems to be improving at the end of life, and both palliative care and the hospice movement offer assistance to people who cannot be cured but still need comfort in their final days.

This Why File will discuss:

Legalized dying: Oregon and the Netherlands now permit some forms of assisted suicide for terminally ill people. Who is using these laws? Have they been abused?

Intractable pain: It's one of the biggest fears for the terminally ill. Are we doing enough to confront that pain?

Everybody has a story: Could telling your own story help build a sense of meaning in the face of death?

Murder or legalized suicide... What have Kevorkian and Oregon wrought?

Background pattern from Bruegel's The Triumph of Death, c. 1562

Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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