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Dr. Death, American icon

EuthanasiaSuicideJack KevorkianDeath

I'VE ALWAYS BELIEVED that someday there will be a Jack Kevorkian postage stamp. Granted, it will be a first-class stamp that costs $3; that's how far into the future we're talking. But considering we've already had a Richard Nixon stamp, who says you need charisma to grace the upper right corners of America's envelopes?

Historical relevance, however, is a different story. Kevorkian, who was released Friday after just over eight years in a Michigan state prison, may have his greatest relevance ahead of him.

Kevorkian's been off our radar screens for some time. In April 1999, he received a 10- to 25-year sentence in the death of Thomas Youk, a terminally ill 52-year-old who wanted to die but was unable to kill himself. Between 1990 and 1998, Kevorkian had, by his own claim, assisted in the deaths of more than 130 people. His thorny hybrid of creepiness and misguided activism — call it creeptivism — had led to his being charged with and eventually acquitted of several counts of murder or assisted suicide or both. The Youk case, however, was different. Kevorkian stretched the definition of "assistance" by injecting Youk with potassium chloride, videotaping the process (including Youk's death), sending the tape to "60 Minutes" and then challenging authorities to charge him with murder. When they did, he represented himself in court and lost, ending a career that had involved almost as much courtroom theater — he'd previously gone on a hunger strike and arrived for trial wearing a powdered wig — as voluntary euthanasia .

As political mouthpieces go, Kevorkian is the right-to-die movement's most embarrassing relative, a zealot who's been compared to a back-alley abortionist and whose penchant for performing his services in the back of his Volkswagen bus only added to his ick factor. But just as back-alley abortionists played a crucial role in the reproductive rights movement, Kevorkian's histrionics gave his own cause a visibility it would never have had otherwise.

Consider some of what's transpired while Kevorkian's been behind bars. For much of that time, legislators in California have been trying to pass what is now called the California Compassionate Choices Act. The bill — modeled after Oregon's Death With Dignity law of 1994 and sponsored by Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles) and Assembly members Patty Berg (D-Eureka) and Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys) — would allow doctors to prescribe medication to terminally ill, mentally competent patients "to provide comfort with and assurance of peaceful dying if suffering becomes unbearable."

Unlike Kevorkian, who appeared to be no more afraid of the "s word" than he was of acting as his own lawyer, the California bill only uses the word "suicide" twice — and only to claim that that's not what it's authorizing. As linguist Geoffrey Nunberg pointed out on this page in February, the bill's supporters have opted for idioms: "aid in dying," "choice in dying" and "end of life choices."

Before we call the euphemism police and stop this bill on semantic grounds alone, let's consider what else we've learned in Kevorkian's absence. In Oregon, fewer than 300 people have ended their lives by way of lethal prescription since the law took effect in 1998. Fears that sick people would flock to Oregon to hasten their deaths went unrealized. Meanwhile, the California bill is closer than ever to making its way through the Legislature. That a state Assembly vote is scheduled to take place just a week after Kevorkian's reappearance on the scene is the kind of plot twist most self-respecting screenwriters would consider "too broad."

But Kevorkian, like death itself, has proved inescapable. Though his future dealings in the end-of-life business may be limited to his own (at 79, he's reportedly in poor health, and the terms of his probation essentially forbid him from going near anyone who might be a candidate for assisted suicide), it's hard to ignore a man who's famous for saying, "Dying is not a crime."

Maybe that's because we've grown accustomed to not hearing about dying at all. For all the efforts made in the years since Kevorkian went to prison (including defeated bills and ballot measures in several states), Americans seem as reluctant as ever to think rationally, critically or even just honestly about death. We've experienced 9/11, sent troops to war, watched videotaped beheadings and drastically revised our notions of "security." Yet throughout all this we've kept death safely in the background. .

That's why Kevorkian, whether he's remembered as a hero or a criminal, may well end up on a postage stamp someday. Until then, his very existence is a reminder of how activism can sometimes turn into creeptivism — and how sometimes that's the only way to make us think about the unthinkable.


mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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