THE NEWS STORIES have become almost matter of fact. "Another Body Left at Hospital by Kevorkian" read the account in The New York Times. Few details followed. We learned only that Dr. Kevorkian showed up at a hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., with the body of Nancy DeSoto. Ms. DeSoto, 55, had come to Michigan the day before, according to Dr. Kevorkian's lawyer, not to commit suicide but to talk with Dr. Kevorkian. She was dead by the following noon. Ms. DeSoto told Dr. Kevorkian she suffered from multiple sclerosis.
She could have told him anything. He doesn't check medical records. He's a trigger-happy executioner. Ms. DeSoto is victim No. 42. Another of Dr. Kevorkian's recent victims, Rebecca Badger, 39, also told him she had MS (a non-fatal ailment). But the coroner who performed the autopsy could find no evidence of disease.
Three juries have acquitted Jack Kevorkian out of sympathy for people who are suffering extreme and irremediable pain. But those juries were tragically wrong because the road to physician-assisted suicide leads not to humaneness but to casual cruelty.
Why do people who are mobile and functioning seek out Dr. Kevorkian at all? Why not close the doors to the garage, turn on the car and wait for carbon monoxide to poison them? The answer is that people who want doctors to help them commit suicide are actually asking for someone in authority to sanction the act.
It isn't that people who are suffering should be blamed for considering suicide. The danger is that permitting doctors to kill the very sick or very sad opens the door to terrible abuse -- in fact to simple murder. It is advertised as compassion, but it becomes convenience for the healthy and well.
The Netherlands has permitted physician-assisted suicide for a number of years, and the results there should terrify us. Herbert Hendin, a psychiatrist who has studied the Dutch model, reported to The New York Times that while safeguards were originally designed into the law, they've been flouted. A second opinion is required before euthanasia can be performed, but "doctors who were for physician-assisted suicide referred their patients . . . to like-minded doctors so the answer was 'yes' and 'yes.'"
At first, the law required that the patient request euthanasia, but no longer. The wife of a man with chronic disease who had grown tired of caring for him offered him the choice of a nursing home or euthanasia. He chose the latter. A depressed 50-year-old woman whose son had been killed asked her psychiatrist to help her die. It was done.
The elderly in Holland feel terrible pressure to foreshorten their lives for the convenience of their families. Many are afraid to check into hospitals when they're sick because doctors are permitted to kill the terminally ill.
Consider what would happen in the United States, where an elderly relative's illness is not just an emotional and social burden but a financial one as well. People would certainly feel pressure to commit suicide rather than eat up the children's inheritance.
Who will be the most likely candidates for euthanasia (for that is what physician-assisted suicide inevitably becomes)? Surely not just quadraplegics with malignant pancreatic tumors. Robert Bork suggests that babies with disabilities, AIDS patients and the lonely elderly will be prime candidates.
Yale Kamisar, a first amendment lawyer who opposes his usual liberal allies on this issue told the Times, "I identify with the dying patient who is weak, vulnerable, subject to suggestion, coercion, seduction. If assisted suicide went through, we'd be providing more safeguards for criminals picked up on the street than we would for the terminally ill."
There were no safeguards for Nancy DeSoto. She was ill, but she wasn't dying. Her talk with Dr. Kevorkian may have been a confused plea for help -- not to die but to live. Perhaps she needed better medicine, or psychotherapy, or a new church. We let ourselves off easy by endorsing the "right to die." What really needs shoring up is the duty to care for those in need.
Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 10/29/96