Janet Adkins wanted only to die with dignity. To that end she traveled from her home in Portland, Oregon, to Holly, Michigan. There she met with Dr. Jack Kevorkian, inventor of a controversial suicide machine that allows a person to give herself a lethal injection of potassium chloride.
Janet Adkins was in the early stages of Alzheimer's Disease, an untreatable illness that slowly but inevitably takes one's memories, and eventually, one's life. Adkins saw her future, and she refused to accept it. So she decided to take her own life.
While Adkins had already begun to experience some memory loss, her family agrees that she was still rational. "It was not a desperate thing or a depressed situation," her son Neil told the New York Times. "She was the one that helped us through it."
Kevorkian's machine, and Adkins's use of it, have forced the medical community to rethink its stance on euthanasia. Passive euthanasia, the withholding of life-sustaining care, when requested by a patient or the patient's guardian, has become accepted practice. But the medical establishment still refuses to condone active euthanasia. (See "Don't Block the Exit," Apr.)
Kevorkian's machine helps eliminate one objection to active euthanasia: the fear of a rogue doctor abusing his power to end lives. Adkins not only verbally requested the procedure, she pushed the button that sent the poison into her body.
But there still remains a more fundamental objection. Doctors are supposed to save lives, the argument goes, so they shouldn't end them. Some doctors feel that active euthanasia violates the Hippocratic Oath's directive to comfort the suffering, because it leaves the physician with no patient left to comfort.
But while that interpretation observes the letter of the Hippocratic Oath, it violates its spirit, and doctors other than Kevorkian seem to realize this. "It's not uncommon for physicians of cancer patients to say, 'Here's some medication, and make sure you don't take more than 22 pills because 22 pills will kill you,'" Judith W. Ross, a professor of medical ethics at UCLA, says in a Los Angeles Times article.
Clearly there is disagreement within the medical community, and there needs to be more discussion of the issue to clarify the role of physicians. But forcibly keeping doctors from aiding patients who wish to die (as the state of Michigan wishes to do) violates the rights of the physician and the patient.
Our nation was founded upon the ideal that individuals should control their own lives. The ultimate expression of this right is the choice to end one's life. Most of us will never have to make that choice. But some of us will find ourselves stricken with disease that threatens to rob us of our dignity or leave us in tremendous pain. No one should force us to live, against our will, under those conditions. And if a doctor's sense of compassion compels him to, then he should be free to help with that death.
In a poll taken before Adkins's death, the Los Angeles Times found that 55 percent of Americans think a person has a right to commit suicide if suffering from fatal illness or great pain with no hope of improvement. And one third can imagine themselves taking the life of a loved one suffering from a terminal illness.
As Ron Adkins told reporters after his wife's death, "It's not a matter of how long you live, but the quality of life you live. It was her life and her decision, and she chose it."