Death's Little Helper and His Suicide Machine


October 30, 1991|By ARTHUR CAPLAN

ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA — St. Paul, Minnesota. -- Freddy, the notorious star of the slasher genre, may finally be dead, but, just in time for Halloween, Dr. Jack is back.

Despite an Oakland County (Mich.) court order prohibiting him from using his ''suicide machine,'' Dr. Jack Kevorkian thumbed his nose at the judicial system and helped two more Michigan women kill themselves last Wednesday.

He had assisted in the death last year of another woman, Janet Adkins, who came to Michigan from Oregon to commit suicide when she became despondent upon learning that she had Alzheimer's disease.

Last week, Dr. Kevorkian aided the suicides of Sherry Miller, 43, of Roseville, Michigan, who had a severe case of multiple sclerosis, and Marjorie Wantz, 58, of Sodus, Michigan. Ms. Wantz suffered from a painful but not immediately life-threatening condition known as pelvic adhesions. Neither woman was terminally ill. Both had been asking Dr. Kevorkian to help them die for years.

Ms. Wantz died using the latest model of Dr. Kevorkian's machine. Ms. Miller inhaled carbon monoxide through a mask supplied by Dr. Kevorkian. Both died in the setting Dr. Kevorkian has come to favor -- a state park.

Some say Dr. Kevorkian did not kill anyone. He merely assisted. This absurd line of argument so befuddled Michigan's courts that they rejected a murder charge in the death of Janet Adkins on the grounds that she killed herself by throwing the switch on the suicide machine.


Dr. Kevorkian built the machines that killed Ms. Adkins and Ms. Wantz. He has spent the past few years looking for people to use them. He was present when all three women died. He helped attach them to their devices of death. And he supplied the instructions on how to use them. Flicking a switch is the end of a chain of events that points right to Dr. Kevorkian.

The legal system of Michigan should be summarily disbarred if it cannot make a murder charge stick under these circumstances. The important question is not whether Dr. Kevorkian killed these women, but whether what he did was morally right. And it wasn't.

The women who died needed no medical assistance if they wanted to kill themselves. They were competent women who could have used any of a number of methods to end their lives. It appears the only reason they sought out Dr. Kevorkian is that they wanted their deaths to be clean, neat and quick. They wanted someone else to do what they could not bring themselves to do.

Those are not good enough reasons for doctors to help people commit suicide or for our society to allow them to do so. Our laws should make suicide hard, not easy. Suicide and assisting in a suicide should be messy, disturbing, troubling, trying and difficult.

Another reason Dr. Kevorkian's actions are immoral is that he is in no position to serve as a plausible arbiter of death. This is a man who has been a tireless advocate for euthanasia. He is the wrong man to counsel anyone whose illness, pain and disability lead them to think about killing themselves. These people need to talk to a doctor who believes suicide is a bad idea -- not a good one.

Dr. Kevorkian has shown himself to be a clear and present danger. He has now helped three people kill themselves and has yet to face a criminal charge or a day in jail for it.

America has worked itself into a frenzy over the death of one person who got AIDS from a health-care professional. Where's the moral outrage over a doctor who deliberately assists in the suicides of three people?

Arthur Caplan is director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Minnesota. He wrote this commentary for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

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