Kevorkian's death crusade finally stopped

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© Los Angeles Daily News - 29 April 1999

by Mona Charen

One might almost think that Jack Kevorkian wanted to be punished. His death trade had been tooling along nicely with more than 100 victims to his credit and scarcely a raised eyebrow from the authorities. The newspapers gave his assisted suicides perfunctory coverage, with the exception of one particularly grisly body he deposited at the morgue. (Kevorkian had ripped the man's kidneys out, tying off the bloody vessels with dirty string.) Perhaps Kevorkian couldn't bear to be out of the headlines for so long and therefore viewed Thomas Youk as an opportunity. Youk's death was different from any of Kevorkian's previous efforts in two ways. First, it was broadcast on national television. Second, Kevorkian himself administered the deadly dose of drugs instead of permitting the "suicide" to pull a lever that would release the chemicals into an intravenous line. It was about as direct a challenge to the state of Michigan as could be imagined. Dr. Death had been at war with official Michigan for many years. It began when the state revoked his medical license, continued with four criminal prosecutions (three of which ended in acquittals and one in an intentional mistrial), and went further still with a law passed by the legislature making it a crime to assist someone who is killing himself. Within the past two years, pro-euthanasia forces succeeded in putting mercy killing on the ballot. It was defeated 2-1.

Kevorkian, who regards anyone who disagrees with him as either stupid or malevolent or both, was finding it hard to live with the decision of Michigan voters that mercy killing ought to remain a crime. And so he found the ideal way to thumb his nose at them -- he enlisted "60 Minutes" and virtually invited the state to arrest him.

It did. The producers of "60 Minutes" were fortunate to avoid criminal liability, but that's another matter. Blinded by zealotry, Kevorkian then made another mistake. He elected to serve as his own attorney.

Kevorkian has always believed that his claims of righteousness are incontrovertible. His was the humanitarian approach to sickness and dying, he claimed. His "patients" had terminal illnesses and came to him in desperation, knowing that assisted suicide was their only escape from weeks or months of pain and suffering. But, as a jury finally decided, those claims were false. In the first place, not all of Kevorkian's victims were terminally ill. Many listed multiple sclerosis as their reason for seeking death. MS is not fatal. Others were not sick at all. Rebecca Badger was 39 when Kevorkian helped her to kill herself. She had told him that she suffered from MS. But after her death, the coroner who performed the autopsy announced that she did not have the disease. "I can show you every slice from her brain and spinal cord," he said, "and she doesn't have a bit of MS. She looked robust, fairly healthy. Everything else is in order -- except that she's dead."

Another of the women who sought out Kevorkian's services had been beaten by her husband in the days before she killed herself with the good doctor's help.

It isn't that assisted-suicide advocates have no arguments. There are some very hard cases that make the rigid foreclosure against hastening death seem cruel. But assisted suicide is not the answer. Those who truly want to end suffering offer palliative care, psychiatric treatment (we can treat depression; we can't bring people back from the dead) and loving support.

Assisted suicide slips very readily into the scary, immoral world of pushing inconvenient people toward an early grave. What begins as an effort to deal with the hard cases of severe suffering quickly degenerates into a pattern of serving the convenience of people other than the patient -- an exhausted spouse, stressed-out children or the wider society (the Hemlock Society believes sick, elderly people should be euthanized to save health-care dollars for younger people).

This is exactly what has happened in Holland, where the elderly carry "passports for life" in their wallets to avoid euthanasia if they should happen to be hospitalized. Thanks to one Michigan jury, and a tough judge whose sentence concluded with "Consider yourself stopped," we have taken a step back from that abyss.

Mona Charen writes a column distributed by Creators Syndicate.

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