Facing a charge of first-degree murder, Dr. Jack Kevorkian now has what he wants: a spotlight focused on physician-assisted suicide. Unfortunately, there are enough troubling ethical considerations in this case that the glare of national attention holds the risk of producing a setback for the rights of patients facing terminal illnesses or incurable and degenerative conditions.
Kevorkian made headlines this past June when he assisted in the death of Janet Adkins, a 54-year-old Oregon woman who sought him out after learning that she had Alzheimer's disease. Adkins, her husband and a friend flew to Michigan, where she met Kevorkian and discussed her desire to die before her condition deteriorated. He agreed to help. In the back of his Volkswagen van, Kevorkian attached Adkins to the intravenous tube of his "suicide machine," a device that allows a patient to flip a switch, changing the intravenous solution from a harmless saline to drugs that cause death within minutes.
Because Adkins actually flipped the switch, she technically caused her own death. But Michigan prosecutors see this as secondary to the fact that Kevorkian's assistance was essential. In their view, his role constituted murder.