Suicide debate begins anew legislators may hold answer

May 03, 1994|By Newsday

The acquittal of Dr. Jack Kevorkian of charges he helped a man kill himself does not provide a clear picture of the future -- either for Dr. Kevorkian himself or for the assisted-suicide movement.

"I think it's the start of the debate," said Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. "I think we're going to see a lot of momentum put into this debate by this opinion, but it's still not clear to me where the debate's going to go."

For one thing, some ethicists said, Dr. Kevorkian's legal strategy, depending in part on the technical issue of where his patient actually died, blunted the verdict's value as an indicator. "They got things so tied up in technicalities and legal loopholes that even the jury couldn't figure out why they acquitted him," Mr. Caplan said.

Still, the Rev. Richard McCormick, an ethicist at the University of Notre Dame, said he fears that people may read too much meaning into the verdict. "I think it will be broadly misinterpreted, because it won't be studied carefully," Father McCormick said. "This will simply be a vote for Kevorkian. That's what a lot of people will interpret it to be."

Beyond the interpretation, the more important question is what state legislatures and voters will do. Ballot initiatives to make assisted suicide legal have failed since the start of the decade in Washington and California, and legislative efforts have also fallen short.

"None of the bills to legalize assisted suicide has gone anywhere, and I don't see any of them going anywhere at the present time," said Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which strongly opposes such laws. On the contrary, he said, several states have clarified and tightened laws prohibiting assisted suicide.

In Oregon, the language of a ballot question proposing an assisted-suicide law received final judicial approval last week, after a legal battle with opponents. The Oregon Death with Dignity Campaign must gather 66,771 signatures to get it on the ballot.

"As of today, I probably have close to 50 people out collecting," said Geoff Sugerman, the campaign manager. "We have until July 8 to do it, and I think that we're going to get there."

Mr. Sugerman said that the Kevorkian verdict helps show that "public sentiment is growing more and more in our favor." But he added: "The way Dr. Kevorkian goes about his activity would not be allowed under [the proposed] Oregon law."

That bill would not allow doctors to take an active role in deaths, beyond prescribing medication. Also, "the attending physician under our bill must be someone who deals with terminally ill patients."

Dr. Kevorkian, a pathologist trained to analyze tissue, not treat patients, would not qualify.

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