Dr. Death Goes Free

August 31, 1992

When Dr. Jack Kevorkian first made national headlines in 1990 by assisting in the death of an Oregon woman who had Alzheimer's disease, there was an intriguing split in public reaction.

Ethicists and physicians condemned his participation in a deliberate death. Meanwhile, radio talk shows were inundated with callers voicing support. "Dr. Death" struck a sensitive nerve.

Too many Americans have seen family members and friends subjected to the new way of death -- a medical battleground where the process of dying has turned into a war between technology and mortality, a war in which the best interests of the patient sometimes get lost.

Recently, a judge dismissed the latest murder charges against Dr. Kevorkian because, unlike Maryland and many other states, Michigan does not prohibit assisting in a suicide. That may change, since officials have been repeatedly embarrassed by his quest to publicize his beliefs.

Even if Michigan does not move to close the loophole, there is already evidence that the doctor has hurt the cause he seeks to advance. Last fall, voters in Washington state held a referendum on a measure which would have legalized physician-assisted suicide under tightly controlled conditions. Opinion polls showed passage was likely. Then, two weeks before the vote, Dr. Kevorkian hit the headlines again for assisting in two other deaths. The publicity helped "put a face on the fears" of assisted suicide, as one observer put it, and the measure was defeated. A similar measure is on the California ballot this fall, and few supporters there consider Dr. Kevorkian a friend of their cause.

None of the deaths Dr. Kevorkian has been involved with would fit the criteria of the Washington or California proposals. If assisted suicide is ever justifiable -- and there are doctors who believe in some cases it can be -- the decision should meet some basic tests. For instance, the physician should have an established relationship with the patient and know how family and friends would be affected by this death. Certainly the decision should involve more than one professional opinion.

An angel of mercy or a dangerous zealot? Perhaps the saga of Dr. Kevorkian is best understood as another sign that many Americans feel helpless in the face of a health care system that often seems to regard them more as cogs in a wheel than people who need sensitive, humane care.

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