Chapter 11:Deliberate Termination of Life and Physician Assisted Suicide: Aid in Dying
|Section 1. Case Presentation|
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jack Kevorkian, M.D. (born Pontiac, Michigan, May 20, 1928) is a controversial American pathologist. He is most noted for publicly championing a terminal patient's "right to die" and claims to have assisted at least 130 patients to that end. He is famous for his quote "dying is not a crime." Imprisoned in 1999, he was serving out a 10 to 25 year prison sentence for second-degree murder in the 1998 poisoning of Thomas Youk, 52, of Oakland County, Michigan. He was paroled early in December 2006, due in part to a terminal illness from which he was suffering.
Kevorkian started advertising in Detroit newspapers in 1987 as a physician consultant for "death counseling." Between 1990 and 1998, Kevorkian assisted in the suicide of nearly one hundred terminally ill people, according to his lawyer Geoffrey Fieger. In each of these cases, the individuals themselves took the final action which resulted in their own deaths: voluntary euthanasia. Dr. Kevorkian allegedly assisted only by attaching the individual to a device that he had made. The individual then pushed a button which released the drugs or chemicals that would end his or her own life. Two deaths were assisted by means of a device which employed a needle and delivered the euthanizing drugs mechanically through an IV. Kevorkian called it a "Thanatron" (death machine). Other patients were assisted by a device which employed a gas mask fed by a canister of carbon monoxide which was called "Mercitron" (mercy machine). This became necessary because Kevorkian's medical license had been revoked after the first two deaths, and he could no longer get the substances required for "Thanatron".
On the November 23, 1998 broadcast of 60 Minutes, Kevorkian allowed the airing of a videotape he had made on September 17, 1998, which featured the voluntary euthanasia of Thomas Youk, an adult male with full decisional capacity who was in the final stages of ALS. After Youk provided his fully-informed consent on September 17, 1998, Kevorkian administered a lethal injection. This was novel to other patients as Kevorkian administered the injection himself as opposed to having Youk complete the process. This incited the district attorney to bring murder charges against him, claiming that Kevorkian single-handedly caused the death. Kevorkian filmed the procedure and the death and submitted it for broadcast on 60 Minutes.
During much of this period, Kevorkian was represented by attorney Geoffrey Fieger.
Conviction and imprisonment
Kevorkian was tried numerous times over the years for assisting in suicides. Many of these trials took place in Oakland County, Michigan. In every instance prior to the Thomas Youk case, Kevorkian was acquitted.
Kevorkian was even beginning to gain some public support for his cause, as is evidenced by the defeat of Oakland County prosecutor Richard Thompson to David Gorcyca in the Republican primary. The result of the political election was attributed, in part, to the declining public support from the prosecution of Kevorkian and its associated legal expenses.
Kevorkian also demonstrated a flair for dramatic publicity stunts at this time, showing up to one trial in a powdered wig and protesting an incarceration pursuant to another trial by staging a hunger strike. He also wore a placard challenging the Oakland County prosecutor to bring him to trial for the death of Youk.
On March 26, 1999, Kevorkian was charged with second-degree homicide and also for the delivery of a controlled substance (administering a lethal injection to Thomas Youk). Unlike the prior trials involving an area of law in flux (assisted suicide), the law of homicide is relatively fixed and routine. Kevorkian, however, discharged his attorneys and proceeded through the trial pro se (representing himself). The judge ordered a criminal defense attorney to remain available at trial for information and advice. Inexperienced in law and persisting in his efforts to appear pro se, Kevorkian encountered great difficulty in presenting his evidence and arguments.
The Michigan jury found Kevorkian guilty of second-degree homicide. It was proven that he had directly killed a person because his patient was not physically able to kill himself. He was sent to prison in Coldwater, Michigan, to serve a 10-to-25-year sentence.
In the course of the various proceedings, Kevorkian made statements under oath and to the press that he considered it his duty to assist persons in their death. He also indicated under oath that because he thought laws to the contrary were archaic and unjust, he would persist in civil disobedience, even under threat of criminal punishment. Future intent to commit crimes, of course, is an element courts and parole boards may consider in deciding whether to grant a convicted person relief. Since his conviction (and subsequent losses on appeal), Kevorkian has been denied parole repeatedly.
In an MSNBC interview aired on September 29, 2005, Kevorkian said that if he were granted parole, he would not resume directly helping people die and would restrict himself to campaigning to have the law changed. On December 22, 2005, Kevorkian was denied parole by a board on the count of 7-2 recommending not to give parole.
In a recent interview with ABC News, Kevorkian's lawyer stated that Kevorkian was terminally ill with Hepatitis C, which he contracted while doing research on blood transfusions and was expected to pass away within a year. Kevorkian had applied for a pardon, parole, or commutation by the parole board and Governor Jennifer Granholm, and on December 13, 2006 it was announced he would be paroled on June 1, 2007.
In the 1960s, Kevorkian enrolled in an adult education oil painting class in Pontiac, Michigan. He combined his understanding of the human anatomy with his fascination with death and created, as author Michael Betzold describes in his book Appointment with Doctor Death, 18 canvases that "are as bold and strident, as critical and unforgiving, as pointed and dramatic as Kevorkian's own fighting words. They are strikingly well-executed, stark and surreal --and frightening, demented and/or hilarious, depending on one's point of view.".
Although the 18 original canvases have been lost, Kevorkian returned to his art in the 1990s to finance his crusade for assisted-suicide.
Dr. Jack Kevorkian: Dr. DEATH! Physician Assisted Suicide
Michigan Law vs Assisted Suicide; 1998 case, taped for CBS "Sixty(60) Minutes"
Dr. Death: Jack Kevorkian Summary by James Rowe, QCC, 2005
On the 5th of August, 1993, Thomas W. Hyde Jr., a suffering of Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), was brought to Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s 1969 Volkswagen Bus – his residence – to be assisted in suicide. Providing Hyde with a mask connected to a tube of carbon monoxide, Kevorkian gave Hyde a string which, when pulled, released a paperclip holding the gas from filling the mask, which subsequently resulted in Hyde’s death, twenty minutes after being pulled. A video tape made on the 1st of July, 1993, showed that Hyde desired the procedure, with him stating explicitly, “I want to end this. I want to die.” Hyde was the 20th person Kevorkian helped to kill.
Arrested and charged with violation of a 1992 Michigan law to stop his activities, and which stops people from providing “the physical means” or “participating in the physical act” of helping someone commit suicide, although the law did allow for procedures or administration of medicine that might provoke death, so long as, “the intent is to relive pain or discomfort.” On the May 2nd, 1994, a jury found Kevorkian innocent on the charge of assisting suicide, with one juror noting, “He convinced us he was not a murderer, that he was really trying to help people.” Another juror noted a view held by many today, “I don’t feel it’s our obligation to choose for someone else how much pain and suffering they can go through. That’s between them and their God.” Kevorkian would go on to proclaim that he’d continue to champion the right to death, declaring, “I want the option as I get older, and I want it unencumbered, uninitiated, free from my medical colleagues. So I did it for myself, too, just as any competent adult would want to do.” Adding that one should only help someone commit suicide, however, under stringent safeguards, “You act only after it is absolutely justifiable. The patient must be mentally competent, the disease incurable.” However, owing to the illegality of the practice, he was not able to maintain his rigid standards, including not having his patients assessed by a psychiatrist, which he declared was proper.
The critics of Kevorkian attacked him on the very fact that he did not commit to his actions with the safeguard of a psychiatric evaluation, and that it was very likely that those patients who went to Kevorkian were suffering from depression, and thus rational consent was lacking in the procedure. Others would bring up the their worries that, should physicians be allowed to terminate the lives of patients, that role could potentially expand to assisting those who did not petition the doctor for help, or even declare who should and should not die. They might even be recruited, say the critics, by the government, which may enact policies identifying those who should be “assisted” in the process of death. Owing to all this, the potential for abuse is conceived of as so severe, that physicians should simply be barred from the practice. Still further, critics argued that a physician should focus instead on helping the patients live a life as pain free as possible, so they may die, when death is imminent, as comfortable as possible, and enjoy the last days, weeks, months, or years, in relative comfort with family and friends. Hospices have served this role for decades, but they remain marginal in the medical field, with no respect often given by those in the profession.
In September of 1998, Dr. Kevorkian, even after the Michigan Department of Consumer and Industry services, which controls the licensing of physicians, charged Kevorkian with acting without a license, and Kevorkian was issued a cease-and-desist order, and after further declaring that he’d help people die, Kevorkian killed Thomas Youk via lethal injection, an act which was not simply assisted suicide, but actual euthanasia. The process was video taped and sent to CBS, where it was nationally broadcast on Sixty Minutes to an audience of 15.6 million households in excerpts. Declaring his intentions, Kevorkian told a reporter, “I want a showdown. I want to be prosecuted for euthanasia. I am going to prove this is not a crime, ever, regardless of what words are written on paper.”
On the 25th of November of that year, the prosecutor for Oakland County, Michigan, filed first-degree murder charges against Kevorkian. David G. Gorcya, the prosecutor, declared that the actions of Kevorkian fitted precisely the definition of premeditated murder and that not even consent is a legal defense to commit such an act. On the 13th of April, 1999, Kevorkian was convicted on charges of second-degree murder and sentenced to a term from ten to twenty-five years. Judge Jessica Cooper said, “The trial was not an opportunity for a referendum.”
The matter of Dr. Kevorkian remains a contentious issue, with those who sympathize with him rooting such sympathy in the supposed bravery in forcing society to face an issue it has chosen to put aside, with his critics decrying that he made into a circus a serious discussion, not to mention the ethical concerns that are rooted in euthanasia and assisted suicide.
his section was organized, prepared and written by Mark Riddagh (SCCC, 2006) using Ronald Munson's Intervention and Reflection as a guide.
The Infamous Dr. Kevorkian
Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s claim to fame came in the form of several acts of illegal physician-assisted suicide. Unlike Oregon’s legal means for physician’s to help terminally ill patients end their lives by prescribing lethal doses of medication, Dr. Kevorkian directly assisted in the suicides by offering lethal injects and fatal gas inhalation to those requesting a quick termination of their lives. Additionally, to add fuel to the fire, many of those "helped" by Kevorkian were not technically his patients but merely those seeking his renowned, renegade practices.
One particular case that brought the doctor into the limelight was the videotaped death of Thomas W. Hyde Jr., a 30-year-old Michigan resident with a wife and baby daughter. Mr. Hyde struggled daily with Lou Gehrig’s disease, a.k.a. amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which is a degenerative neurological disorder. By the time he sought the assistance of Dr. Kevorkian, Hyde was paralyzed and could no longer swallow by his own facility. Suctioning was needed to keep him from choking to death on his own saliva.
The doctor rigged an elaborate system to assist Hyde in ending his life. A tube, with one end connected to a tank of carbon monoxide and the other to a respirator mask that cover his nose and mouth, was fitted with a paperclip that cut the flow of gas. The end of a string was attached to the paperclip and the other end was given to Hyde. With a simple jerk of his hand, the clip flung loose, releasing the lethal gas that penetrated his lungs. He was dead within twenty minutes.
Although the case was brought to trial, a jury found Kevorkian not guilty. The decision to exonerate the doctor seemed to reside on the grounds that his actions were motivated by compassion and that he additionally acted according to local law that provided for a patient’s pain relief.
In 1998, the good doctor again found himself on trial for murder, but this time he was not as fortunate. His guilt was determined by two overriding factors. First, the passing of a Michigan law, making physician assisted suicide illegal and second, the doctor’s deliberate injection of lethal chemicals into Thomas Youk, a fifty-two-year-old man also suffering from ALS. For the first time, Kevorkian, by his own action, directly caused the death of a human being. Kevorkian videotaped Youk’s death and sent the tape to CBS’s Sixty Minutes." Selected portions of its contents were broadcast and on November 22, 1998, America watched excerpts of Kevorkian performing his notorious practice. On November 25, Jack Kevorkian was charged with first-degree murder and on April 13, 1999, he was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years imprisonment.
Many supporters feel that Dr. Kevorkian has been instrumental in supporting the self-determination of critically ill patients. For many, he is a hero that acts from a heart of compassion and a mind for human dignity. His critics claim that he has authorized the death of many whose decisions to die could have been the result of undiagnosed depression. He has been further criticized for acting without the safeguard of psychiatric evaluation. Jack Kevorkian has claimed that his actions were motivated by people’s right to end their lives, when they deem appropriate. In his own words, "I want that option as I get older, and I want it unencumbered , unintimidated, free with my medical colleagues. So I did it for myself, too, just as any competent adult would want to do." (Munson – 199)
Canadian Parental Euthanasia Summary by James Rowe, QCC, 2005
Robert Latimer admitted to killing his 12 year old, cerebral-palsy suffering girl, on the pretense that he loved her and did not want her to live a life of constant agony, produced by complications in a surgery intending to correct some problems associated with her condition, but which instead reduced her to a state of constant suffering, and robbed her of the ability to walk, talk, or even to feed herself. He killed her by placing her in the cab of his pickup-truck, closing the windows, and let the engine run until she died from carbon monoxide poisoning. Latimer was charged and convicted of second-degree murder in 1994, overturned due to a technicality, but then convicted a second time, and although the jury ruled that it was, in fact, second degree murder, they ruled reluctantly and asked the judge to give him only one year in jail.
Public support was overwhelmingly on the side of Robert Latimer, but many who dissented were advocates for the disabled, who had serious concerns that someone determining a disabled person’s life was no longer worth living and getting away with it would produce a frightening precedence. Ron Bort, the president of the local chapter of Voice of People with Disabilities, stated the following, “IF you can make your own choice, that’s a different thing. For someone else to decide your life is not worth living – that’s the scary part.” Defending himself, Latimer would declare, “People are saying this is a handicap issue, but they’re wrong. This was a torture issue. It was about mutilation and torture for Tracy. She had bedsores, she was in pain all the time, and she wasn’t eating well. With the combination of a feeding tube, rods in her back, her leg cut and flopping around, and bedsores, how can people say she was a happy little girl?”
In 1995 the Canadian Senate debated whether they ought to introduce a special category into the criminal code to cover such “mercy killing” cases akin to those of Latimer. No law was ever changed, however, and subsequently the judge was forced to give Latimer the mandatory sentence of twenty-five years in prison, with no possibility of parole until after a decade served.
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© Copyright Philip A. Pecorino 2002. All Rights reserved.
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