Pain, suicide and Dr. Kevorkian

August 06, 1996|By Mona Charen

WASHINGTON -- Jack Kevorkian's 33rd victim, Rebecca Badger, was just 39 years old.

She was, she said, so crippled by the effects of multiple sclerosis that she relied on a wheelchair and had to be dragged by her daughter to the bathroom. She had difficulty with bladder and bowel control and was in constant, unbearable pain. Ms. Badger turned to Jack Kevorkian as an ''angel of mercy'' to free her.

On July 9, in a hotel room in Pontiac, Mich., Dr. Kevorkian administered an injection of potassium chloride, and Ms. Badger died, holding her daughter's hand.

So far, that is exactly the image of doctor-assisted suicide we have come to know. The press, generally well-disposed to any group claiming a ''right'' to something, has looked kindly upon those who demand to end their own lives. Broadway and Hollywood endorsed assisted suicide in the hit show ''Whose Life is it Anyway?'' Two federal courts have found a ''right to die'' in the Constitution (don't bother consulting your copy).

And if Dr. Kevorkian is viewed as eccentric, well, at least his heart is the right place -- so decreed three juries who have declined to convict him.

But that image is tragically, cruelly wrong.

The coroner who performed the autopsy on Ms. Badger found no evidence of multiple sclerosis. ''I can show you every slice from her brain and spinal cord,'' L. J. Dragovic told the Washington Post, ''and she doesn't have a bit of MS. She looked robust, fairly healthy. Everything else is in order. Except she's dead.''

Everything else physical may have been in order (though Ms. Badger did suffer uterine cancer in 1985), but psychologically, she was suffering grievously.

Married at 17 and divorced at 19, she raised two daughters by herself. Her second marriage, in 1994, lasted only a year. Her medical history included abuse of pain killers like Demerol.

She consulted many doctors but had only one unsatisfactory visit with a psychiatrist. That she was in pain was undeniable. But what caused it?

Johanna Meyer-Mitchell, Ms. Badger's physician for 11 years, realizes now that she ought to have called in a competent psychiatrist. ''If I had know this was what she was planning . . . There never was any objective evidence as to why she was in as much pain as she said she was in.''

Dismissal of life

When Roe v. Wade was decided, opponents of the decision warned that a casual, even cavalier, dismissal of emerging life would coarsen us toward all life. Be warned, said theologians, philosophers and moralists -- the dying are next. And then who? The sick? The disabled? The merely unwanted? It is 25 years since that fateful decision, and legal euthanasia is here.

Assisted suicide appeals to a society that seizes quick fixes for its burdens. Just clothe it in rights talk, and you can feel noble while acting ignobly. Unwanted child? Don't bear the consequences. Don't place the child for adoption and create joy out of misery. Just kill the fetus. End of problem. And it's the woman's right, after all.

Let's not kid ourselves. Doctor-assisted suicide is being performed not just on people who are in the last stages of terminal illness. Six of Dr. Kevorkian's victims had (or had claimed to have) multiple sclerosis, which is not fatal or terribly debilitating in many cases.

Suicidally depressed

Talk of rights and self-determination is all very well, but most people who choose suicide do so because they are depressed. With proper treatment, their wish to die would disappear.

Herbert Hendin, a psychiatrist who has written a forthcoming book on doctor-assisted suicide, ''Seduced by Death,'' believes ill and desperate patients who say they want to die are really only asking for relief from suffering. ''We can bring people back from depression,'' he told the New York Times Magazine. ''We can't bring them back from the dead.''

As for those who peddle death and call themselves humanitarian, consider good Dr. Kevorkian's recent comments to the National Press Club: The judicial system is ''corrupt,'' the devout are ''irrational,'' the medical profession is ''insane,'' and the press is ''meretricious.'' This is a humanitarian? Forget his self-serving claims. Look at the facts: Dr. Kevorkian is a ferocious hater who is ridding the world of human beings -- one ''suicide'' at a time.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/06/96

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