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June 6, 2007
Column #1,345
Assisted Suicide: Why is "Dr. Death" Not in Jail?
(First of a two part series)
by Mike McManus

Jack Kevorkian, the world's most prolific serial killer, who takes credit for murdering 130 patients, was released from prison last week after serving only eight years of a 17-year sentence, convicted of second degree murder for one death.

He should not have been released before serving his full term. Already he's been on "60 Minutes" and "Larry King Live" and could be soon collecting $50,000 per speech.

Why should he be rewarded for his macabre, grisly record of killing 130 people? If anything, his 17-year sentence was too light. "We think he got out awfully early for a serial killer of people with disabilities," said Diane Coleman, President of Not Dead Yet, disability activists who've fought him for decades.

Why not 130 consecutive life sentences? Or the gas chamber, like one of his killing machines, used for "patients" numbers 3 through 25, in which a tightly fitted mask covered a person's face, connected by tubing to a canister of carbon monoxide? Kevorkian wrote in his book, "Prescription: Medicide," that this form of death "often produced a rosy color that makes the victim look better than a corpse."

To some, "Dr. Death," as he gladly became known, is a hero. Supporters of assisted suicide and euthanasia consider him a bold advocate for his beliefs and his desire to assist the terminally ill. For example, Sidney Rosoff, president of the Hemlock Society U.S.A., said, "Dr. Kevorkian acted in the tradition of a caring and courageous physician."

However, Kevorkian had his license to practice medicine revoked in Michigan in 1991 for misusing his training to kill rather than heal patients. He broke the Hippocratic Oath taken when he became a physician: "I will use treatment to help the sick, according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrongdoing."

The American Medical Association stoutly opposes all attempts to pass legislation to permit physician-assisted suicide, such as a bill being considered this week in California.

Why?  The AMA explains, "Physician-assisted suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician's role as healer, would be difficult or impossible to control, and would pose serious societal risks."

Consider some of Kevorkian's cases. In 2000 The New England Journal of Medicine published a study reporting upon 69 of his victims in Oakland County, Michigan where autopsies were performed by the county coroner. The results were shocking.  Fully 75 percent of those whose suicides he assisted would have lived at least six months.

They were NOT near death. Indeed, many were robbed of years of life.  Only 35 percent were in pain and five had no evidence of disease.

However, 72 percent did experience a recent decline in health.  Two-thirds were divorced, widowed or never married, suggesting they did not have social support. Curiously, 71 percent were female. Typically, five times as many men as women commit suicide.

How can this difference be explained?  Women who become depressed over life's circumstances, really do not want to die, but they hope by attempting suicide, that their plight will become known, and friends or family will reach out to them. "Sixteen out of 17 suicide attempts fail, according to the U.S. Surgeon General," said Diane Coleman of Not Dead Yet.

"They need suicide assistance, but to PREVENT the suicide - not assistance to die," she added. Those who went to Kevorkian for "help," got not counseling but death itself.

Dr. Death was never a normal physician healing people.  He was a pathologist, who studied corpses to determine cause of death. In 1966 after six years as pathologist at Pontiac General Hospital,  he was fired.   He worked at several other hospitals, but never for more than a few months.

He then developed a diabolical plot which he worked on for 20 years - to do live organ harvesting, performed on death row prisoners on a voluntary basis in a medical speciality he called "obitiatry" (from the word "obituary"). He dreamed of creating an "auction market for available organs."

Not surprisingly, no death row prisoners wanted his service.  That's what motivated him to search for  "subjects" who were "hopelessly crippled by arthritis or malformations," according to an article he wrote for "Medicine and Law." 

Unfortunately, he killed at least 130 people before he was finally imprisoned. He promises not to do so again, realizing that if he assists another person to die, he will be re-incarcerated.

He does leave a grim legacy in Oregon, the only state to pass physician-assisted suicide, the results of which will be examined in next week's column.

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