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Suicide's Partner : Is Jack Kevorkian an angel of mercy, or is he a killer, as some critics charge? 'Society is making me Dr. Death,' he says. 'Why can't they see? I'm Dr. Life!'

December 06, 1992|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ROYAL OAK, Mich. — Minutes after the state legislature passed a bill to stop Dr. Jack Kevorkian from assisting any more suicides, Kevorkian let out a whoop: "Now, the stage is set for fun!"

"They don't realize the dumb mistake they've made," smirked the retired pathologist. "They'll be sorry . . . . ."

"Dr. Death" is having fun these days. The thrill of the crusade, the supreme satisfaction in "doing what's right," is nothing less than exhilarating, he said in recent interviews.

And if the anti-Kevorkian bill becomes law as expected, this self-appointed flag-bearer of the right-to-die movement says he will step up the pace of what he does best.

For 2 1/2 years, Jack Kevorkian has been thumbing his nose at the medical Establishment, the courts, and lately some feminists, by helping desperate people--all of them middle-aged women--end their lives.

From his first assisted suicide in 1990 to his most recent two weeks ago, Kevorkian so far has avoided prosecution. In this state, where Kevorkian has lived most of his 64 years, there are no laws against helping another commit suicide.

While he has enjoyed public support for his promises of an easy exit to the pain-wracked and pleading terminally ill, a detailed look at the six Kevorkian-assisted suicides since June, 1990, raises several unsettling questions:

* Were these pain-free, dignified deaths? The bodies of two women showed "bruising injury" at the sites of Kevorkian's repeated and unsuccessful attempts to insert IV needles. Four of the women died of carbon monoxide poisoning, which is known to cause severe headaches and intense nausea.

* Were the women competent to make this most final medical decision? One had been involuntarily admitted to psychiatric hospitals twice in the year before she died. Another suffered such severe memory loss that she was unable to sign her name or remember what she was talking about on the eve of her death.

* Were these merciful deaths or calculated steps toward what Kevorkian has described as "my long-range goal of terminal experimentation?"

Just who is Jack Kevorkian--student of death and lover of Bach--and why is he doing this? Is he a visionary, an angel of mercy? Or is he, as some critics claim, "a lunatic," "a serial mercy killer" with no love for women?

"Society is making me Dr. Death," he says. "Why can't they see? I'm Dr. Life!"

'Counseling'

In an anonymous living room in a home near Detroit, 10 people gather in front of a video camera to discuss the planned deaths of two women.

The women themselves are here, as are their next of kin, a few friends and the man who has brought them together for this most unusual chat.

Jack Kevorkian, looking comfortable in an overstuffed easy chair, twirls his eyeglasses and inquires casually, "So, what do you want? Put it in plain English."

"I want to die," says Marjorie Wantz. "I've tried (to kill) myself three different times . . . tried everything, short of a gun. This time," she says and looks warmly at Kevorkian, "it will be done right."

This is "death counseling"--part of the Kevorkian protocol for prospective suicides. Patients must state their final wishes for Kevorkian's records.

His older sister Margo Janus handles the camera work as Kevorkian conducts freewheeling discussions with his patients and their families about their plans to die.

In anticipation of the doctor's first and, to date, only double assisted suicide, there are a lot more people involved in this session. "I'm doing two together because if I help one of you, the authorities will prevent me from doing the other," Kevorkian explains.

And, though it lasts for nearly two hours, the show's stars are almost drowned out by crowd noise and an overwound cuckoo clock.

There is talk of car-pooling to the site the next morning and a briefing by Kevorkian on what to expect from the media. "They'll make the 5 o'clock news," he assures the families.

Marjorie Wantz has a final spat with husband Bill over his last-minute doubts. "Maybe it's selfish of me to feel that way," Bill sniffs. "Right, selfish," Marjorie says.

Her suicide partner, Sherry Miller, contributes little to the discussion. Miller, who has multiple sclerosis, sits in her wheelchair, staring at the floor. When she does speak, it is in a small and somewhat garbled voice that few of the others seem to hear. "I just want out, out," she whispers at one point.

Sherry's brother says he hates to see her die but respects his sister's judgment. Still, he tells Kevorkian, " I could not put the needle in her arm. I could not put the pillow over her head . . . "

'Not All Easy Deaths'

" Euthanasia means easy death. I can assure you these were not all easy deaths," says Dr. L. J. Dragovic, the Oakland County medical examiner who has investigated the deaths of the six Michigan women.

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