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Assisted suicide: Jack Kevorkian was just a sideshow

The death-with-dignity movement is about compassion, freedom and common sense.

June 12, 2011|By Betty Rollin
  • Dr. Jack Kevorkian poses with his "suicide machine," built of scrap parts, which delivered a fatal dose intravenously.
Dr. Jack Kevorkian poses with his "suicide machine," built… (Associated Press )

In 1982, when I helped my mother die, Jack Kevorkian wasn't yet on the scene. Within a few years he was, noisily assisting terminally ill people who wanted to die.

My mother was dying of ovarian cancer, but in her view, not fast enough. She was 76, and one afternoon she put it to me: "I'm not afraid to die, but I am afraid of what this illness is doing to me. There's nothing but nausea and pain. There's no point in a slow death. I've got to end this."

I loved my mother and didn't want her to die, but because I loved her, I helped her. That is, my husband and I did research. We vaguely knew that helping someone die was illegal, but we didn't want to think about it. So, after every doctor friend refused to give us guidance — and warned us to stop doing what we were about to do — and after rejecting ideas like a gun (we're middle-class New Yorkers; where on Earth would we get a gun?), a sympathetic friend gave us the name of a doctor in Europe. With his help by telephone, we managed to find a way to help her get out of a life she no longer wanted.

Besides worrying about whether we were going to get it right, we worried about being found out. The real potential danger for my husband and me, however, came after I wrote a book about what happened; otherwise, no one would have been the wiser. But a lawyer I consulted told me that, technically, my mother took her own life without any active help from us—like handing her the pills. In addition, all the evidence against me I brought against myself (in the book) which, apparently, doesn't count. Besides, New York's district attorney seemed to be pretty busy with real criminals and left us alone. And that was the end of it.

When Kevorkian became well known, first helping people die with his "suicide machine" and later, when the courts took that away from him, with a tank full of carbon monoxide, people asked me if I would have wanted his help with my mother. I said no. He was too creepy; he seemed to enjoy himself too much. When he helped people to die, he seemed more focused on himself than the dying person. And later still, when I became involved with the death-with-dignity movement, we all couldn't help noticing that Kevorkian had no interest in joining with other people who were looking for ways to make death with dignity legal.

I slowly came to realize that what my husband and I had done was not a good answer to the problem of assisting in a death like my mother's. In the first place, it might not have worked. We were amateurs, after all, and dying is trickier than one thinks. My mother had to take the lethal medication with the greatest care and preparation. Second, it's risky psychologically to have family members help people die. Sometimes the feelings between the dying person and the family members are not loving enough to make it feel like the right thing to do. And in some cases, it might not be the right thing to do.

But I knew there had to be some good way to help suffering people like my mother, who, shortly before she died, asked me a question that stayed in my mind: "What happens to other people who don't have you?"

I had no idea, but I know now. In 1994, the state of Oregon passed a law allowing physicians to give a lethal prescription to terminally ill, mentally competent Oregon residents. In 2008, the state of Washington passed a similar law. And — so far at least — they're the only ones. Because when attempts have been made to introduce the law in other states, like California, opponents — particularly the Roman Catholic Church — have waged powerful campaigns of disinformation. ("Your doctor will kill you," etc.)

Many people who believe the claim that their physicians will kill them confuse the Oregon and Washington laws, with all of their safeguards, with what Kevorkian did and what he went to prison for: killing a patient. No matter how altruistic his intentions may have been, that's what he did — in front of a "60 Minutes" audience no less. Almost no one in the movement — and there are several organizations now trying to make physician-assisted death available to more Americans — believe anyone should be killing anyone.

It's about the (qualified) patient ending his own life when he chooses with (qualified) help.

It's about something else too. It's about peace of mind. I saw firsthand what it means to a person to know she is no longer "trapped in life," which is how my mother put it. She felt she, again, was in control. The feeling of being in control seemed to wipe away her terror. Once she knew she would have access to the lethal medication, she became so calm that her sister, who didn't know what we were plotting, thought she was getting well.

No doubt Kevorkian's patients felt as my mother did. The families of his patients defended him throughout his trials. And those of us in the death-with-dignity movement, who are trying to change the law, continue to criticize his methods but have come to feel grateful for one thing he did: bring attention to an important issue. Now that he is gone, it will, I hope, be easier to convince people that our efforts to help suffering people die is not about murder. It's about compassion, freedom and common sense.

Betty Rollin is on the board of the Death With Dignity National Center and is the author of "Last Wish."

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