Sunday, April 25, 2010

You Don’t Know Jack

So I just watched the premiere of Barry Levinson’s new film, You Don’t Know Jack, starring Al Pacino as Jack “Dr. Death” Kevorkian. It was extraordinarily well made and featured the most nuanced and understated performance I’ve seen from Pacino on-screen in, well, a long, long, time! He was great, as were Brenda Vacarro (as Jack’s sister Margo) and Susan Sarandon (as a Hemlock Society organizer who is stricken with pancreatic cancer) and Chicago’s own, Rondi Reed (as the judge who finally sent Jack to jail).

More importantly than it being a good film, however, is the issue with which the film engages – namely, assisted suicide, death with dignity, or euthanasia – depending upon your point of view. I personally believe that if a human being is suffering unbearable pain with a terminal illness and is rational that he or she should be allowed to request that a doctor help usher him or herself out of this world with some dignity, some grace. I understand (and respect) the concerns that some have about potential abuses if we as a society were to embrace this, but I also believe (strongly) that there are some pretty simple ways to avoid abuse – like getting two or three opinions from licensed doctors that the patient is mentally competent.

Look at what happens all too often now: many folks are bankrupted in the last months (or weeks, or even days) of their lives spending all they have on medical care that is more about prolonging their life than improving their life. Or making them comfortable. Why is it okay that people go bankrupt to spend another several weeks in agony? Or, why can’t we trust that a patient who is in constant pain and has no chance of recovery might reasonably wish to simply let go – say their goodbyes, get their affairs in order, and let go? Is that irrational? I think not.

This whole subject seems to have moved to the back burner of our national discourse in the past several years – understandably so, given wars and the recession, et al – but perhaps its time we start to discuss it again. At the moment, only the state of Oregon has any allowance for physician-assisted suicide. Perhaps I’ll move there if I am unfortunate enough to contract a life-threatening terminal disease.

It’s a conversation worth having, I think. It’s hard, yes. It’s painful, yes. But it matters. None of us want our loved ones to suffer needlessly and yet so many do, every day of every year. I’m hoping that this fine movie might help spur an increased dialogue on this very important – and, very controversial – subject.