Thursday, January 03, 2008

Law & Order premiere mimics the life of Dr. Death (Jack Kevorkian)

Assisted death is still a sensitive and timely topic, and the hit TV show Law & Order explores this controversial topic in the 18th season premiere.

Because of the assisted dying theme in Whale Song, I have read many articles about right-to-die activist and retired pathologist Jack Kevorkian, who was paroled in June 2007, after spending 8 years in prison. He had been convicted of second-degree murder [People v. Kevorkian, 248 Mich. App. 373, 639 N.W. 2d 291 (2001)]. So when I sat down last night to watch the season premiere of Law & Order, I was surprised at how similar the plot was to reality.

WARNING: Spoilers!

In the premiere of Law & Order, Jeremy Sisto joins the cast as Cyrus Lupo, a detective who comes home after 4 years abroad and finds that his brother has committed suicide by lethal injection. Shortly after, a second man is found dead in the same manner, after being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease. Both men had their deaths videotaped, to be aired by a well-known television reporter. This is similar to the real-life case of Thomas Youk, whose assisted death aired on November 22, 1998, on 60 Minutes.

In the Law & Order episode, there is graphic mention of how the suicide machine is used and the side effects of the drugs. It is then discovered that Lupo's brother's death was assisted by a young woman who turns out to be the daughter of a recent parolee (ironically nicknamed "Dr. Death") who spent 10 years in prison, and detectives believe that he had something to do with the men's deaths.

In many of the articles I read about Jack Kevorkian, he was referred to as "Dr. Death". Many anti-right-to-die activists proclaim that Kevorkian's chosen method--lethal injection--is painful and slow, making it an inhumane way to die. But others argue that lethal injection, if done correctly, is fast and virtually painless. Law & Order mentions that death can be painful, yet we see two men slip away rather peacefully.

The first scene with the Kevorkian-like character shows a man who still holds onto his beliefs but cannot do anything with them. He professes to the detectives that because of his parole stipulations, he cannot help anyone who wants an assisted death, and that it's the fault of the legal system. This is also very much like the words of Jack Kevorkian, who proclaims that he will work now towards changes in the laws, rather than violate his parole terms and break the law. "I can't talk in detail about the procedure or advocate a procedure, especially with individuals," Kevorkian says in a recent interview with Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes.

Assisted death has been in the news a lot this past year. Dignitas, the Swiss right-to-die organization was ousted from their offices and forced to make other accomodations for their clients who come to them in their final days. Sharon and Ozzie Osbourne loudly voiced their own personal assisted-suicide pact, should either of them lose their mental faculties. (Some may argue that has already happened.)

While Whale Song does have a theme (one of many) of assisted dying, the novel itself neither condones nor condemns this personal of all choices. It is not the key focus of the novel, which is why I have readers as young as 7 reading it and loving it. The messages in Whale Song deal more with surviving traumatic experiences, such as bullying, racism, the death of a mother, the loss of a father. The message is really about redemption and forgiveness. Life does go on, even after tragedy. And the messages I have received from readers of all ages have expressed how much they have loved the delicate handling of assisted dying and that it has opened doors to discussion with friends, spouses and kids.

Order Whale Song.

See my article on Kevorkian.

The following sites are listed for information purposes only and represent both sides of the argument on assisted dying. My personal belief is that one cannot truly make such a decision unless in this situation. If I had to watch someone I loved dying a slow and painful death with no hope of recovery and no quality of life, I admit, I would be tempted to consider assisted dying. However, I cannot say for sure that I would follow through.

Here are a few sites that may help you understand this issue.

Right to die/assisted dying organizations:

Pro-life oranizations:

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