Kevorkian gives up aiding suicides, to focus on legalization

December 26, 1993|By New York Times News Service

TROY, Mich. -- Dr. Jack Kevorkian says that he is through helping people commit suicide and that he will devote his efforts to a campaign to make assisted suicide fully legal.

"I can't help humans who are suffering any more, because I have given my word," Dr. Kevorkian said in an interview last week.

Dr. Kevorkian was released Dec. 17 after 18 days in a county jail on a charge of violating Michigan's law against assisted suicides, and as a condition of his release on a token $100 bail, he promised a judge that he would not help any more people take their own lives.

He said his vow this time is a complete departure from past insistence that he would always help a suffering patient who needed his services. "I never once before said I'd stop totally, but I have now," he said.

But he said his most recent stay in a solitary cell changed his mind. "It became clear to me in jail," he said, "that this issue is now at the stage where it needs resolution. My decision to desist has helped clear the muddy waters, and leaves the door open for the authorities to do likewise -- stop until this is resolved."

The 65-year-old retired pathologist, who has attended 20 suicides since 1990, said he would now push for a constitutional amendment in Michigan that would guarantee that people could legally seek a doctor's help in ending their own lives. "What I am going to do now instead is carry on a whistle-stop campaign, city to city, to get this guaranteed by a vote of the people as a fundamental right," Dr. Kevorkian said.

The man who has become world-famous for his crusade to gain acceptance for assisted suicides said he was participating in a long interview so he could "set the record straight on just what this is all about and where it's going now."

He said the hostile reaction that his campaign has generated in some quarters has been painful at times. "I am a human being, and unjustified criticism hurts," he said. "You have to let the skin get a little thick, but I could never let it get so thick that it doesn't hurt."

He is not without humor over it all, however. A figure who is routinely labeled "Dr. Death" or "Suicide Doc" in tabloid headlines, Dr. Kevorkian gestured around the apartment where he is temporarily living with his sister and said with a grin: "This DTC isn't what you'd expect, would you? You'd think there should be flasks bubbling and tubing hanging from the ceiling."

Even his harshest critics acknowledge that Dr. Kevorkian is largely responsible for energizing the national debate on whether terminally ill people should be allowed to die if they wish.

"I think Dr. Kevorkian deserves great credit for bringing this issue into the public consciousness," said John D. O'Hair, a Wayne County, Mich., prosecutor who first charged Dr. Kevorkian with violating the state law, which was written in response to Dr. Kevorkian's actions.

Dr. Howard Brody, chairman of the bioethics committee of the Michigan State Medical Society, has criticized Dr. Kevorkian's methods and ethics -- but agrees that he has forced a reluctant medical profession to begin facing the issue. "It's my guess that some state will legalize some limited form of physician-assisted suicide within five years," he said. "I don't think that would have happened without Dr. Kevorkian."

Dr. Kevorkian first became widely known in June 1990 when he connected an Oregon woman to a suicide machine he devised.

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