In relentless pursuit of a belief Kevorkian: More than anyone else, the retired Michigan pathologist has forced Americans to consider assisted suicide and to re-examine how we care for the dying.

Sun Journal

July 02, 1996|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

Jack Kevorkian has been busier than ever with his carbon monoxide machine. He helped three people die in 10 days last month, raising his total to 31 assisted suicides.

And dozens of desperate people call every day.

Michigan has tried every conceivable way to prosecute Kevorkian. But juries and the public seem to support him -- in some cases adore him. Some are appalled by his relentless pursuit of legalizing assisted suicide, but many Americans consider Kevorkian a folk hero, albeit an extremist and an eccentric one.

Kevorkian has been tried three times on five charges of assisting suicides, in violation of Michigan law, and acquitted every time. Kevorkian was clearly fed up with the trials and the courts and was insulting and defiant on the witness stand. He said that Michigan courts were "worse than Nazi Germany," that the United States was no longer a democracy and that prosecutors had intimidated other doctors supporting assisted suicide "into fearful silence."

He was so bold that after testifying on a Monday, he assisted that evening with his 28th suicide. The next day, he returned to court.

More than anyone else, Kevorkian, a retired Michigan pathologist stripped of his medical license, has forced Americans to consider assisted suicide, and, more broadly, to re-examine how we care for the dying.

He is a wiry, cantankerous 68-year-old man who lives alone, buys clothes at the Salvation Army, prefers a can of peas to any restaurant and says "having children makes you a prisoner of society." While he has put the issues of assisted suicide and care for the dying before the public, his critics wonder now why he does not slow down, stop and let the courts and legislatures work things out.

"He has succeeded in raising attention," says Karen Orloff Kaplan, executive director of Choice in Dying, a national nonprofit organization devoted to improving care for the dying. "One wonders why he continues to [flout] the law. What is his motivation now?"

Janet Good, his close friend and former president of the Michigan Hemlock Society, says Kevorkian would gladly put away his death machine if legislatures or courts or the medical profession would legalize assisted suicide and establish clear regulations.

"Society has forced us to do this in a cloak-and-dagger way," says Good, who has attended Kevorkian's last four suicides, one of them at her home. "It needs to be regulated. That is what he asks for. He's said publicly he would be glad to stop, if we could get this regulated by the medical profession."

Good says Kevorkian really wants more than just assisted suicide. He wants to establish a system in which people who want to end their suffering and their lives can donate their organs. Dying people can help others live longer and better. "He's really been dragged through the mud for thinking that way," Good says.

On the witness stand last month, Kevorkian told the jury his philosophy. He said that the ancient Greeks were more humane than 20th-century Americans, and that people throughout history have always had their physicians help them die. He maintained that in the United States, people often treat cats and dogs with more compassion than suffering people.

He said his motivation was not to kill people but to relieve suffering.

"A physician should do all he can to preserve the health and life of a patient, within bounds of patient autonomy," Kevorkian testified. "That's one duty. The other part is to arrest and alleviate suffering."

He also explained that since the state of Michigan had stripped ** him of his license to practice medicine, he could no longer attend to the first mission but only the second, relieving suffering.

He was questioned by his lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger.

"Do you encourage people to end their life?"

"Never," Kevorkian said.

"Who took the action that ended their life?"

"The key action is taken by the patient," Kevorkian said. "I don't help anybody commit suicide who doesn't want to commit suicide."

"Why do you help the patients?"

"I empathize with patients," Kevorkian said. "I want a physician who says I'll help you. That's the kind of doctor I want. That's the kind of doctor I want to be."

"Why should a physician help people leave this world?" Fieger asked.

"That is part of the duty of reducing suffering," Kevorkian said.

At one point, on cross-examination, prosecutor Lawrence Bunting asked Kevorkian, "Why are you the only doctor [assisting in suicide]?"

"Because you've intimidated others into fearful silence," Kevorkian said.

Clearly, the nation is divided on the issue of assisted suicide.

Many medical journals have reported recently that physicians, when polled anonymously, favor assisted suicide in some form, yet the American Medical Association voted last month at its annual convention in Chicago to continue its opposition. "We're here to treat patients, not to do away with them," said Dr. Dennis Brown of Schaumburg, Ill., as the AMA's House of Delegates voted after 10 minutes of debate.

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