The Magazine

Dr. Death Rides Again

Jack Kevorkian's movement has done better -without him.

Jun 4, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 36 • By RITA L. MARKER and WESLEY J. SMITH
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Kevorkian also raised eyebrows in some quarters for having extremely brief relationships with his "patients" before helping them commit suicides. For example, Good Morning America noted that many of the people over whose deaths Kevorkian presided died within 24 hours of meeting him for the first time.

Similar all-but-nonexistent doctor-patient relationships have been reported in Oregon. Although a patient's requests for assisted suicide purportedly must span a 15-day period, official Oregon reports indicate that, over the last seven years, some patients have died by suicide having known their assisting doctors for a week or less.

What about that 15-day waiting period? Simple political expediency, as Kathryn Tucker, Compassion & Choices director of legal affairs, acknowledged. Speaking at a 1997 forum in Seattle, Tucker said:

In my view, the Oregon measure, in some sense, became overly restrictive. It has a fifteen-day waiting period. And my own view of the federal constitutional claim is that a fifteen-day waiting period would be struck down immediately as unduly burdensome. As we've seen in the reproductive rights context, you can't have a waiting period of that kind of duration. But in the legislative forum, to pass, you need to have measures that convince people that it's suitably protective so you see a fifteen-day waiting period.

There are some who claim that, if he had lived in Oregon, Kevorkian would not have been able to carry out his style of assisted suicide in the state. They point to the fact that in many of his cases the deadly overdose was not provided orally but by infusion, and that Kevorkian was a pathologist who had not had a full-time position in the medical field for years. However, neither Kevorkian's method of assisted suicide nor his spotty credentials would have precluded his acting legally in Oregon.

Contrary to general perception, Oregon's law does not require that the lethal drugs be taken orally, only that someone else not administer a lethal injection. But only Youk's death--Kevorkian's last--was by lethal injection. The suicide contraptions that he used for earlier assisted suicides required the soon-to-be dead victims to self-administer, generally by pushing a lever triggering the flow of deadly drugs or carbon monoxide gas.

Once again, we see the possibility of this Kevorkian approach in Oregon. Tucker, in a 1996 interview with American Medical News, described a similar procedure and deemed it permissible under Oregon's law. Noting that self-administration is not limited to consuming drugs orally, she said:

I think that technology can make self-administration possible for a broad range of patients who would not have the wherewithal to self-administer otherwise. For example, there are certainly technologies that permit patients to do things by voice activation of a computer that could generate an infusion of medication. That can be self-administration.

Thus, according to one of the Oregon statute's most fervent supporters, Kevorkian's method of assisted suicide would apparently not violate state law.

But what about Kevorkian's lack of medical experience in examining and treating patients? Kevorkian was a pathologist who did not treat patients after his medical school and residency days in the 1950s. If he had held an Oregon medical license (rather than Michigan and California licenses which were revoked because he was engaging in illegal assisted suicides), Kevorkian would have been within his rights under the law to act as an "attending physician" who could legally carry out assisted suicide. You see, in Oregon, any licensed physician--including any dermatologist, ophthalmologist, or pathologist--can write lethal prescriptions. It doesn't really take a lot of medical savvy to prescribe a deadly dose. To paraphrase the Geico commercial, "It's so easy even an unemployed pathologist can do it."

There are some differences, however, between Jack Kevorkian and Oregon doctors who carry out assisted suicide. In upcoming months, the Oregon docs will go ahead assisting suicides. Jack Kevorkian can't do that and stay out of jail. But he has other plans. According to reports, he's scheduled to hit the speaking circuit where he'll be commanding fees of $50,000 to $100,000. Who says crime doesn't pay?

Rita L. Marker is an attorney and executive director of the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide. Wesley J. Smith is an attorney for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide and a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute.