Dr. Kevorkian, of assisted-suicide fame, was released from prison today (as I write) after serving an eight-year sentence for second-degree murder and administering controlled drugs. Yet it seems just yesterday that his how-to video made national news on 60 Minutes. Our culture condemned his actions with a conviction but fell short of imposing a lifetime behind bars. After all, the so-called victim’s family wasn’t exactly pressing charges—and he promised to steer clear of further assisted suicide cases.

Whether you respect or revile him, Kevorkian effectively strummed the exposed nerve of our culture’s ambivalence with respect to medicine and life. While abortion and capital punishment are permanent fixtures of our political lives, other life-death-medicine concerns seem to wax and wane in cycles consistent with either advocacy or emergent technology. So it is that stem cell research and Schiavo-esque issues are to this decade what assisted suicide was to the last.

At the time, Dr. Kevorkian’s cult of the catheter spawned a maelstrom of controversy based on his willingness to engage in self-sacrificing acts of civil disobedience. His subsequent imprisonment seemed to grant him indelible martyr status back then. Fast-forward less than a decade, however, and it’s clear that his imprint on our societal norms was all but scrubbed clean by his “retirement.”

Why am I addressing this issue? Surely it’s not a veterinarian’s concern.

I would agree with you but for my clients’ comments at the time of their pets’ euthanasia (an activity I attend to as often as ten times a week). In these emotional moments, a pet owner’s thoughts often stray to their own death and to what they might prefer would their own demise be in question.

Perhaps it’s rationalization (should people find themselves challenged with the guilt that can accompany pet euthanasia), but these owners frequently offer seemingly heartfelt support for a similar process in humans. It would appear they actually hope they’re loved so well as to wish someone could serve a similar role at the end of their lives. That’s not so far-fetched an assumption, is it?

I have to say that euthanasia is not an issue I’ve fully explored personally, directly and practically—for my own death (though I consider it advisable to keep a living will). But it seems that others have—based on what they say in these last minutes with their pets. 

The percentage of individuals that claim to support a Kevorkian paradigm (even beyond the euphemism of “assisted suicide”) is huge if I’m to believe my own veterinary experience. Yet the American public’s acceptance of human euthanasia is reportedly very low. It’s hard for me to reconcile these two sources of information, disparate as their conclusions are.

So I’m left to wonder—What is it about animals and how we treat them that makes us think about how we would like to be treated? And is this death-bed sentiment real or simply the result of our human need for personal absolution?

Yesterday I euthanized three cats. One had painful cancer no longer amenable to drug treatment. Another was FIV positive and well into the disease’s miserable end-stage. The last was a shriveled twenty year-old who could no longer feed herself or recognize her parents. They were all perfect examples of why euthanasia is considered humane in animals.

Still, I couldn’t help but think that all three owners had waited too long to make the decision to terminate their suffering. So today, when I heard the news on Kevorkian’s release, it led me to ponder the problem of human euthanasia. I, personally, would never want to live with the pain and distress these cats suffered in their last days. And had they been humans, their lives would have certainly been prolonged for months. It’s not a concept I relish.

In my own 96 year-old grandfather’s last days, my sister (left alone while the rest of us were out of town during his emergency) fought tooth and nail to keep feeding tubes out of his body (doctors urged her to consider how he might feel as he starved to death), pleaded successfully to allow him to remain at home, and intervened (fruitlessly) with DNR paperwork when paramedics arrived to apply paddles to his cold body.

It’s amazing to me that with such respect for life, we can treat animals with such kindness but get caught up in a morass of Biblical proportions (pun intended) when it comes to our own inhuman ends.

Maybe Kevorkian wasn’t the right messenger. Maybe his methods (60 Minutes!?) were too extreme. Or maybe his timing was off by a decade or two. Whatever the case, it seems obvious that we have a long way to go in addressing human death humanely.