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Will Doctor Death Find a Place in the American Pantheon?: View

June 7 (Bloomberg) -- Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who died last week at age 83, was a crank, an obsessive, a deeply eccentric loner, and a publicity hog. He also was a hero. There is a connection. Cranks move the world; polite, modest, unassuming people with measured views usually don’t.

Kevorkian’s cause was assisted suicide -- the right of people with painful terminal illnesses to end their suffering in the only way possible. Naturally, as a crank, Kevorkian took this much too far. He thumbed his nose at the law, even statutes written specifically to stop him.

When, on their fifth attempt, authorities finally convicted Kevorkian of second-degree murder, it was because he had videotaped himself administering a lethal injection, bypassing the gruesome devices he had invented to enable patients to inject themselves. Then he sent the videotape to “60 Minutes.” He spent eight years in prison, winning release only after promising that he wouldn’t help people kill themselves.

In a Gallup poll released in May, Americans were split down the middle on doctor-assisted suicide: 45 percent said they found it morally acceptable, and 48 percent said the opposite. It was the most divisive social issue in a survey that included questions on gay marriage and cloning. Yet there is relatively little public argument about assisted suicide. This may be because more of it goes on than anyone wishes to acknowledge. But in our litigious culture, there are still thousands of people who suffer needlessly through intractable pain because their doctors don’t want to get sued for helping them die.

We don’t dismiss the dangers of legalizing assisted suicide, especially the threat of undue pressure on old or sick people or -- at worst -- the emergence of a new social norm that would make assisted suicide a routine or even prescribed method of dying. Talk about the excessive cost of high-tech medicine in the last months of life sometimes give us the willies. Everything possible should be done to make assisted suicide a bad option, but in a free country, it should be an option. The issue requires no consensus: People should decide for themselves.

One function of cranks and extremists is to move the center, where reasonable, moderate people want to be. Kevorkian did this. If doctors and hospitals today pay more attention to the pain of terminal illness, Kevorkian deserves some of the credit. And if a right to assisted suicide is ever established in the U.S., somewhere they’ll raise a statue of Jack Kevorkian.

To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: view@bloomberg.net.

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