Dr. Death Assists in Strangling Respect for Law

June 29, 1995|By WILLIAM P. CHESHIRE

PHEONIX, ARIZONA — Phoenix, Arizona -- People may disagree about euthanasia, but no one can doubt that Jack Kevorkian has effectively put to sleep the notion that we live under a government of laws.

Five years ago a Michigan court, mincing no words, ordered Dr. Death to cease and desist from helping people snuff out their lives. Last month, as the doctor polished off his second ''patient'' of the week, the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed that order. Another assisted suicide this week was the 24th associated with Dr. Kevorkian.

By persisting in his lethal crusade, the appeals court said, Dr. Kevorkian had served as ''an advertisement for criminal and unethical conduct.'' He likewise had made it clear, the court said, ''that neither the actions of the legislature, the executive, nor the judiciary will sway him from his course.'' The court added, ''We will see.''

The fact is that we have seen many times already how easily Dr. Kevorkian evades the law and the courts. Each time the authorities think they have him at last, he slips the noose and is off again to help somebody else get it over with.

Why this lawlessness is permitted remains a mystery. Dr. Kevorkian has no license to kill. He is protected by neither professional credentials nor ambiguities in the law. He is a crank, pure and simple -- a retired pathologist who is driven to commit acts that, however humane, are wholly at odds with legal and medical standards.

Most people who thumb their noses at court orders are found in contempt and jailed. Not Dr. Kevorkian. Most people who are implicated in the death of other people are charged with homicide if the police can find them. Not Dr. Kevorkian.

Part of his legal immunity may have to do with the title ''doctor,'' which in the popular mind provides his homicides with an aura of respectability. The aura is undeserved.

To begin with, while the science of pathology is vital to the practice of medicine, a pathologist is not a healer in the same way that a family practitioner is a healer. His patients are test tubes and tissue samples.

More important, Dr. Kevorkian's assisted homicides are no more legal and proper by virtue of his occupation than they would be if he were a certified public accountant or a pipe fitter. Medical practitioners are licensed to heal, not to kill.

''Do no harm,'' said Hippocrates, a clear prohibition against pumping carbon monoxide into the patient's lungs and dumping the body in a public parking lot -- one of the doctor's ''operations'' last month.

Even if one assumes that people with terminal illnesses have a right to end their lives, surely the process requires some mechanism more ethically tidy than house calls by a man with a mission and canisters of poison gas.

Then there's the little matter of the law.

In most states -- including Michigan, where Dr. Kevorkian operates with something like impunity -- assisting suicides is a criminal offense. In the past four years voters in three states have considered making euthanasia legal, but only Oregon voters have approved such a change, and the Oregon law is being challenged in federal court.

Even in states where laws against homicide do not specifically mention assisted suicides, common-law prohibitions may apply, as is the case in Michigan, according to a December ruling by that state's supreme court.

Reflecting on the high incidence of abortions since Roe v. Wade, some critics worry that legalizing euthanasia might lead to an increasing number of ailing patients, especially the elderly, being pressured into assisted suicide by family members weary of caring for old Aunt Hattie or eager to claim an inheritance.

Rita Marker, executive director of the International Anti-Euthanasia Task Force, envisions the possibility of ''a bleak future where euthanasia is the American way of death and people are expected to request their lethal injection at an appropriate time.''

These are serious considerations. It is not enough simply to observe that the terminally ill sometimes suffer unbearable pain. Without adequate safeguards, people whose pain is not unbearable may find themselves unbearably coerced. A society that thinks of itself as civilized cannot deal carelessly with life, suffering and death, but must devise methods more fastidious than those that govern the disposal of unwanted cats and dogs.

William P. Cheshire is a columnist for the Arizona Republic.

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