Assisted-suicide advocate Kevorkian dies

Right-to-die proponents split over role in cause

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“Dr. Death” is dead.

Now, right-to-die groups hope the passing of Jack Kevorkian, who assisted in about 130 suicides in the 1990s, will shine the spotlight on the practice they call “aid in dying.” They’re encouraging lawmakers to legalize it nationwide, so doctors in all states can pick it up.

But so far, the practice is only allowed in Oregon, Washington state and Montana.

“He was important to the movement. He was very important,” said Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion & Choices, a prominent right-to-die group. “More physicians will gradually incorporate aid in dying throughout the country into their practices. It’s just a matter of time.”

Frank Kavanaugh, a board member at Final Exit Network, another prominent right-to-die group, agrees Mr. Kevorkian’s death should give the movement some “momentum.”

“Each time his name comes up, it advances the movement a little further,” Mr. Kavanaugh said. “When the book is written about right to die with dignity, I think he will be a significant chapter. He brought attention to it, and continues to bring attention to it. He was willing to risk his life and to put it on the line to help people who were suffering.”

The 83-year-old Mr. Kevorkian, who died of natural causes Friday, made himself the face of the right-to-die movement in the 1990s.

The Michigan pathologist would hook patients up to his homemade suicide machine. Some died of lethal injection, while others were strapped to a face mask that was connected to a carbon-monoxide canister. The patients then controlled when they killed themselves.

He became a national figure with his first assisted suicide in June 1990, when Janet Adkins, a 54-year-old Alzheimer’s patient from Portland, Ore., killed herself after an experimental treatment failed to cure her.

“Dr. Death” was stripped of his pathology license shortly thereafter in 1991. But he eluded authorities for nearly a decade, emerging from his first four trials unscathed — three acquittals and one mistrial — because Michigan had no law against assisted suicide at the time.

Then in September 1998, Mr. Kevorkian, who previously said he had helped patients end their own lives, killed a patient who was too weak to do it alone. He was later sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison for the death of Thomas Youk of Waterford Township. He served eight years before he was released in 2007, promising to perform no more assisted suicides.

“Dr. Kevorkian was doing OK until he injected someone himself,” Mr. Kavanaugh explained. “Whether it was a wise thing to do, I don’t think it was.”

His actions sparked a national debate about assisted suicide for patients who doctors think have no hope to live. It raised questions about the reliability of a terminal diagnosis and the possibility of future breakthrough treatments.

But he also was an easy target for critics.

Tina Allerellie blamed him for the death of her 34-year-old sister, Karen Shoffstall. Miss Allerellie said her sister was suffering from depression and fear, but could have survived her case of multiple sclerosis.

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