Dr. Jack Kevorkian, 83, died on Friday in Michigan and his death, from natural causes, has sparked renewed interest in his decades-long fight to make assisted suicide legal, not only in all 50 States, but around the world as well.
Kevorkian himself died of complications from pneumonia after a month-long hospital stay to treat a chronic kidney disease he was suffering from for years. So it's likely he suffered a similar fate to those he'd long been an advocate for: the terminally ill patient enduring anguishing pain but kept alive by modern medicine.
It may never be known what his final days and hours were like, but it's safe to assume he was being given pain medication and was hooked up to machines which prolonged his life, even if briefly. "Doctor Death" as he became known, railed against such practices for decades, calling them inhumane and ultimately needless.
Despite the morbid aspects of his passionate obsession, what some called his death worship, Kevorkian is generally credited with the move to legitimize hospice care alternatives and the more enlightened attitude physicians seem to be displaying regarding empathy for a terminal patient in excruciating pain.
That battle thrust him into the worldwide spotlight, made him a household name, forced the issue out of the shadows - and sent him to jail for eight years for Murder at the age of 71. He was to serve a sentence of 10-to-25 years, but was released early, ironically due to failing health. He rallied after his release in 2007 and once again took up the fight for euthanasia.
In the last 4 years he had become something of a folk hero and even a Renaissance Man who spread his macabre message with conviction, despite the grimly dark overtones. In 2005 he was the subject of a documentary which displayed his softer sides, among them a talent for writing and poetry, surrealistic painting and jazz music.
In January Kevorkian was the featured speaker at a physician's conference in Los Angeles, which was standing room only, and sparked a lively, if contentious, Q&A session afterwards. He was reportedly heartened that the difficult debate over assisted suicide is gaining ground, even if he paid a terrible personal price as the taboo issue's Poster Boy.
Not surprisingly, his death has sparked instantaneous debate, pro and con, over the issue he was most well-known for, and Twitter is leading the way.
Within minutes of his death announcement, thousands of tweets began appearing on the popular social networking site. Mainly crass jokes about the ironic fact that he did not commit assisted suicide himself, but also tempered by many grateful people who thanked him for his nearly lifelong struggle for this unpopular, but vital debate.
If nothing else, Dr. Jack Kevorkian leaves behind a legacy of forcing a thorny issue into the public debate and the world is a better place for his having fought for his own beliefs. He may have prevented the needless suffering of thousands, even tens of thousands of people who had no way of speaking out for themselves. For that he may always be vilified. But he will also always be remembered.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.org