The Interim

Patricia Cashman, Erika Garcellano, Esther Cohan, Sherry Miller, Jarjorie Wantz, Margaret Garrish, Thomas Hyde, Huge Gal—the names of desperate people who chose suicide as the answer to a prospect of suffering and hopelessness.

Forgotten but for their families and friends, these are just a sampling of an increasing list of people who turned to suicide doctor Jack Kevorkian to put an end to their despair.

Since 1990, the Michigan-based pathologist has assisted in the deaths of nearly 30 men and women. The brash Kevorkian sees himself as a compassionate trendsetter whose only motivation is to ease people’s suffering. He is not shy about referring to his opponents as “Silly religious nuts” and other provocative phrases.

Still Kevorkian’s crusade has a dark side. Many critics point to the doctor’s fascination with death, his appreciation for Nazi-like human experimentation, and his suggestion that the severely handicapped be euthanized for the benefit of society. As well, some have charged that Kevorkian’s more recent victims are not terminally ill and could have lived out their lives with proper palliative care.

The Kevorkian story has been marked by arrests, hunger strikes, specially drafted legislation, license suspensions, court challenges, and a whirlwind of publicity and debate. The latest chapter occurred March 8 with Kevorkian’s acquittal in Michigan of his latest assisted suicide charges. It was the second acquittal for Kevorkian under a law drawn up specifically to stop him. A third trial on assisted began in Michigan April 1.

Just days after Kevorkian’s latest acquittal, the two U.S. federal appellate courts overturned bans on doctor-assisted suicide in New York and Washington State. Unless these decisions are overturned by a higher court, it will likely mean the end of similar legislation through the U.S.

Is Kevorkian winning the battle? The failure to make the latest charges stick and the defeat of the Washington and New York state laws would indicate the tide is turning in favour of doctor-assisted suicide. It’s a trend that worries pro-life and pro-family groups who have long warned of the consequences of a diminished respect for life at all stages.

Anti-euthanasia activist and consumer advocate Wesley Smith has monitored Kevorkian’s career since 1990. He told The Interim from his Oakland, California base that Kevorkian’s crusade is leading to softened public attitudes toward doctor assisted suicide.

“Perhaps it’s easier now to shrug off what used to be seen as wrongdoing,” said Smith, who is writing a book focusing on euthanasia and the “culture of death.” He described court decisions supporting Kevorkian as “personal opinion masqueraded as jurisprudence.” Nevertheless Smith is optimistic the U.S. Supreme Court will reverse the Washington state decision which struck down the ban on doctor-assisted suicide. He expressed concern however, that the courts may leave standing a provision that U.S. states can enact legislation making the practice legal.

Smith suggested Kevorkian has been encouraged by a string of court victories. “I’m concerned that another court victory will appeal directly to Kevorkian’s arrogance and hubris,” Smith said, adding that Kevorkian’s next steps may be to begin some of his bizarre human experimentation. Kevorkian has discussed the possibility of opening death clinics in California.

In the late 1950s, Kevorkian tried to convince death-row inmates to consent to experimentation before allowing him to administer lethal drug injections. He has also transfused blood from corpses into healthy, living volunteers.

Smith said it’s important to defeat Kevorkian and his supporters in the political arena rather than through the courts. He said juries are easily swayed by emotion, especially when they aren’t presented with all the facts in doctor-assisted suicide cases.

Meanwhile Cheryl Eckstein, founder and president of the Vancouver-based Compassionate Healthcare Network Association (CHNA), said Kevorkian seems to be moving in a new direction. There’s evidence a number of Kevorkian’s more recent victims were not terminally ill, Eckstein said. She added that with advances in palliative medicine, their pain and suffering could have been lessened.

Eckstein said Kevorkian’s claims of compassion for his patients can never be given any credibility. “He has never cared for a living person in his life,” she said. “He is comfortable only in death. He and his supporters are perpetual carriers of hopelessness.”

Although the Canadian Criminal Code still regards euthanasia and assisted suicide as offences, observers in this country are concerned over what appears to be an increasing climate of tolerance for such practices.

Medical and palliative care associations remain opposed to assisted suicide, yet several public opinion polls showed nearly 75% of Canadians favour the procedure for terminally ill patients who choose to end their lives. Only one in five Canadians surveyed said doctor-assisted suicide should be illegal, while five per cent were unsure.

Poll results were influenced by the February, 1994 Sue Rodriguez case. Rodriguez, who suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease, sought to end her life, but lost a constitutional challenge of the country’s ban on assisted suicide. Supported by British Columbian MP Svend Robinson, Rodriguez ignored the ruling and ended her life by ingesting a “lethal cocktail.” A coroner’s investigation did not discover the doctor who assisted in the suicide.

Rodriguez’s action and Kevorkian’s crusade bear striking similarities to abortionist Henry Morgentaler whose open defiance of Canada’s former abortion law opened the door to greater access to abortion services.

Gwen Landolt, national vice president of REAL (Realistic, Equal, Active, for Life) Women of Canada, notes a pattern in the activism of Morgentaler and Kevorkian. Relying on sympathetic, one-sided overage in the media, these activists flout existing law to invite arrest, court cases and the resulting publicity. They then make emotional defence of their actions in the hope of swaying juries and securing acquittal.

Landolt blames the media for creating an environment of tolerance for fundamental societal changes such as euthanasia and abortion. “There’s a reconstruction of our culture going on ands it’s facilitated by a small group of influential people in the media,” she said. “By making simplistic appeals to emotion and compassion, the media hides the true horror of what is really going on,” Landolt said.

She also expressed concern over appointed, un-elected court justices determining such vital issues of social policy. “Ever since the Charter of Rights came into effect, the courts have failed not only to be deferential to Parliament, but also to use any personal restraint in their decision making.”

Landolt said while justices have expertise in legal matters, they are now ruling on moral and ethical issues that should be left up to a nation’s elected officials. “Such fundamental life issues should not be decided in courtrooms,” she said. “We’ll have to see how the Kevorkian case plays out, because it’s one more example of the courts rushing headlong into the political arena.