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April 17, 1999
Column #920


     The words of Judge Jessica Cooper in sentencing Jack Kevorkian to 10 to 25 years for killing Thomas Youk were chilling.  As she read them, America's worst serial killer, visibly shuddered. Oddly, this man who helped 130 people end their lives and videotaped himself injecting poison into Youk, and got the snuff film aired on CBS' ''60 Minutes,'' clearly did not expect to be found guilty of murder, or to be sent to the slammer.

     ''This trial was not about the political or moral correctness of euthanasia. It was all about you, sir.'' said the judge. ''It was about lawlessness. It was about disrespect for a society that exists and flourishes because of the strength of the legal system.

     ''No one, sir, is above the law. No one.

     ''You were not licensed to practice medicine when you committed this offense and you hadn't been licensed for eight years. And you had the audacity to go on national television, show the world what you did and dare the legal system to stop you.  Well, sir, consider yourself stopped.''

     In the corridor outside the courtroom, a cheer went up from folks in wheelchairs who call themselves, ''Not Dead Yet.'' Some 40 members of the wheelchair movement bent on halting euthanasia, traveled long distances to peacefully demonstrate outside the courtroom each day. ''If this had happened sooner, there are 130 people who would still be alive,'' said Diane Coleman, Not Dead Yet's organizer, as tears rolled down her face.

      ''We are the potential victims. It is our lives at stake.''

     The American Medical Association had such people in mind when it commented, ''Patients in America can be relieved that the guilty verdict against Jack Kevorkian helps protect them from those who would take their lives prematurely.''

     That, indeed, is the danger.

     Half of the people Kevorkian helped kill were not terminally ill and some had no physical illness or lack of autonomy.  They were lonely, depressed or felt under pressure to die from loved ones. Consider the case of Judith Curren, a woman with chronic fatigue syndrome who was addicted to painkillers and depressed.  Only three weeks before her death, she was allegedly beaten up by her husband. That same man  arranged for her to come to Kervorkian to die.

     Rita Marker, executive director of the International Anti-Euthanasia Task Force, who has led the national fight against the movement Kevorkian has help spark, sees his conviction and imprisonment as a ''very appropriate end to his run of serial killings and a disgusting sort of self- promotion.''

     Her concern now is that two more states may follow Oregon's lead in legalizing assisted suicide. Legislation that is a clone of Oregon is on a fast track in California and Gov. Gray Davis probably would not veto it. In Alaska, there is a court case challenging the state's law prohibiting assisted suicide on grounds that it violates the state's constitutional ''right of privacy'' protection.

     In its first year, the Oregon' Health Division (OHD) reports that 23 patients received legal lethal prescriptions in 1998, of whom 15 actually took deadly drugs and died while six others died from their illnesses and two others were still alive.

     Rita Marker does not believe the numbers. ''We don't know what is going on in Oregon. There are no penalties for not reporting. We don't know how many did not report. All the circumstances were provided by the very doctors who provided the lethal prescriptions. How many people on a freeway would call in and tell us what speed they were driving?''  Indeed,  the OHD itself says, ''The entire account could be a cock-and-bull story.''

     A recent report in the ''Journal of Medical Ethics'' indicates that Dutch physicians routinely ignore established euthanasia guidelines created to protect patients against abuse. In 1995, 59 percent of euthanasia cases were unreported, a clear violation of the law. And 20 percent of the thousands of patients killed by doctors were NOT requested by patients! 

     Imagine that you are a patient lying in an Oregonian hospital with congestive heart failure. You are semi-conscious when you hear your son talking to the doctor, ''Mom is suffering so much. Don't you think we should put her out of her misery?''  You know your son is a gambling addict, who has run up thousands of dollars of debt.  If you die, he inherits your estate. You try to speak and say, ''But I don't want to die.  I can recover.''  But your mouth is not moving.

     You think, ''I wished I lived in California where doctors can't kill patients.''

     But for how long?

Copyright 1999 Michael J. McManus.

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