Sentenced to life

March 08, 1996|By ELLEN GOODMAN

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- It's been nearly six years since Janet Adkins, a lover of music and mountain climbing, traveled to Michigan for a back-alley suicide.

Afraid of losing her mind to Alzheimer's disease, the Oregon woman climbed into a van that Jack Kevorkian had driven to a park north of Detroit. There, after saying thank you, she pushed a button that released a lethal drug into her body.

At the time Dr. Jack was an obscure pathologist, a self-described ''obitiatrist'' who believed in experimenting on death-row inmates and who advocated a chain of suicide clinics. Death with dignity was still a matter of ''pulling the plug,'' not assisting suicide.

A shared disease

At that time, too, Gerald Klooster, a California obstetrician and gynecologist, had not yet exhibited the unmistakable signs of the disease he shared with Janet Adkins.

But in 1993, a small item in a California newspaper reported that Dr. Klooster had become lost and confused on his way home from choir practice. He was found sitting in his car two days later.

In 1995, his wife Ruth made an appointment with Dr. Kevorkian for a November ''consultation.'' Before that appointment could be kept, Chip Klooster abducted his father to his home in Michigan and became the first son to sue for custody.

Now in some odd symmetry, Jack Kevorkian and Gerald Klooster are both sharing the legal spotlight.

Dr. Jack is on trial in Michigan -- again -- for his role in the death of two more painfully ill men. Dr. Klooster meanwhile is the bewildered subject of a custody dispute between two factions of his family and between two states, Michigan and California, that have taken opposite sides, each legally claiming him for their own.

He's in a public dispute, as well, between two points of view. Whether the son kidnapped or rescued the father. Whether the elder's rights have been violated or his life has been saved.

In this country, we tend to wrestle with such questions in court. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, ''The law is the witness and external deposit of our moral life.''

But the questions raised by Janet Adkins and now again by Gerald Klooster aren't so much a matter of individual rights and legal wrongs.

They go to questions of belief, to the core of our identity. To the center of our ideas about what makes a life -- our life -- worth living.

There are some 4 million Americans diagnosed with Alzheimer's. That's 4 million Americans who know that they will, sooner or later, lose their minds like a set of keys. If the ''I'' in identity is located in the mind, they will become mindless.

This reality casts the issues of death with dignity and even suicide -- assisted or not -- in a far different framework. How do you determine your own fate? Should you?

After all, few people want to end life while they can enjoy it. If a person with early Alzheimer's makes a pre-emptive strike against this debilitating disease -- as Janet Adkins did -- she will surely lose some good time. But if a person does not make a move, he will -- like Gerald Klooster -- surely lose the ability to decide for himself.

Chilling dilemmas

This cruel disease that takes your self before it takes your life offers chilling dilemmas.

Do I as person of sound mind have the moral right to decide the fate of the person I would become? I may not want to live as that person, but that person -- my future self -- may want to live.

I know many people who enter into pacts with husbands, children, friends. They promise to help each other end life at a designated point. But could I burden my family with the guilt of assisting in the death of the stranger in my body? Could I, on the other hand, bear to burden them with taking care of this ''other'' me?

I don't pretend to know what Dr. Klooster wanted. In testimony, several of his other children said that their father, who had seen his own mother die of Alzheimer's, talked of ending his life. But not ''now.'' He had signed a suicide letter after the disease progressed. But it had been typed by someone else.

The Gerry Klooster who appeared on ''60 Minutes'' last month no longer knew where he was living. But asked if he wanted to live, he answered, ''Of course.''

What should the appeals court do with Dr. Klooster? Send him home to California. Every member of his warring family now agrees, in a supreme irony, that he is no longer rational enough to choose suicide. He is, in the indifferent eyes of the law, safe.

This is the moral fix we are in: A man is sentenced to life because he no longer has enough of that organ of consent -- the brain -- to choose death.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/08/96

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