Kevorkian Sets His Sights on the Non-Terminal

The assisted suicide of a 21-year-old college student opens a new chapter in the ‘right to die’ debate

Roosevelt Dawson wanted to die. Since a viral infection attacked his spine 13 months ago, Dawson reportedly hadn't been able to use his arms and legs and received assistance in breathing. The 21-year-old college student wanted to die so badly he took a hospital to court for the right to leave and seek Jack Kevorkian's help.

Late last month, just hours after receiving permission to leave the hospital, Dawson was dead. A spokesman for the Oakland County, Mich., medical examiner's office said Dawson's disability made it impossible for him to operate Kevorkian's “suicide machine” himself.

In the aftermath of Dawson's death, activists on both sides of the assisted suicide issue are expressing concern. Assisted suicide, many thought, was supposedly limited to those with terminal illnesses. Now, Kevorkian and his associates have opened a new chapter in America's debate over whom should have the so-called “right” to die and who should not. Dawson isn't the only victim of Kevorkian's who did not suffer from a terminal illness.

Less than two weeks after Dawson's body was dumped at a local hospital emergency room, Kevorkian and his associate, retired psychiatrist Georges Redding, showed up at two different Michigan hospitals with two more dead bodies. One was that of a woman who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. The other, a man with fibromyalgia, a non-fatal muscle disorder.

Kevorkian's recent trend of assisting nonterminal patients in killing themselves isn't a surprise to pro-lifers.

Pro-life groups in Michigan, where Kevorkian continues performing his assisted suicides, say his agenda is clear, but it's nothing new. They say Kevorkian has always advocated unlimited access to assisted suicide.

Fickle Supporters

“His agenda is clear—if you're less than perfect you' re better off dead,” said Erin Wilson, director of public information for Right to Life of Michigan, which is running television commercials against assisted suicide. “He's expanding incrementally until anyone with a chronic illness or disability is looked upon as a burden to society.”

Rita Marker executive director of the International Anti-Euthanasia Task Force, agrees. Marker, who has debated Kevorkian and other leading pro-euthanasia leaders across the nation, claims Kevorkian's recent actions are nothing new. However, she sees public awareness of his real agenda increasing.

“People are becoming more aware of what Kevorkian is all about,” she said. “Kevorkian hasn't changed, but the public is realizing how crude, how bizarre, and how bigoted against people with disabilities Jack Kevorkian actually is.”

Some of Kevorkian's past supporters are also calling into question his recent actions. “The answer he chose seems to be a pretty horrible one,” Charlotte Ross, executive director of Death With Dignity, a pro-assisted-suicide lobby group, told ABC News after Dawson's death. “Unfortunately, what this does is tend to raise all kinds of red flags and cloud the issue.”

While Ross may be uncomfortable with Kevorkian's latest actions, other assisted suicide supporters say Dawson's “quality of life” made his life undignified. Geoffrey Fieger, Kevorkian's flamboyant attorney, told reporters after Dawson's death that his low “quality of life” made him an appropriate candidate for assisted suicide.

“I don't care what they say,” he told reporters. “Critics? How can they criticize him for this? Ask Christopher Reeve if he'd approve of Roosevelt Dawson's quality of life.”

Fieger was referring to the actor who is paralyzed from the neck down after a 1995 horse-riding accident. Reeve also needs assistance in breathing, but makes regular public appearances and speaks of his near-death experience.

Marker, who points out that Fieger is just as much a leader in the assisted suicide crusade as Kevorkian, says claims of concern by the leaders of some euthanasia advocacy organizations, such as the Hemlock Society, should be carefully examined. She says the leaders are quick to support Kevorkian when public opinion is on his side, but change their tune when it's not.

“They talk the talk of allowing assisted suicide only for those who are terminally ill, but they're not stupid people,” Marker said, claiming the leaders realize that any law legalizing assisted suicide will inevitably lead to non-terminally ill patients being put to death.

Michigan Pro-Lifers Respond

For Catholic leaders and pro-life advocates in Michigan, the battle is in their own back yard. That fact has prompted leaders to not only fight for a specific state law banning assisted suicide—which Michigan does not have—but also to reach out to those considering seeking Kevorkian's offer of death.

In 1997, the Archdiocese of Detroit founded Project Life, an organization dedicated to reaching out to those in need. Project Life offers social services agencies, health care providers, and hospices to counsel and guide people not to choose assisted suicide or abortion. The organization also has a toll-free number for those in need.

In the days preceding Dawson's death, the archdiocese signed and released an open letter to Dawson and his family offering counseling on alternatives and direct assistance with palliative care. After Kevorkian's team helped end his life, the archdiocese responded.

“Sadly, once this young man's picture appeared on the front page of major newspapers, he was on a fast track to making a decision,” archdiocese director of communications Ned McGrath said in a press release. “Think of the pressure he must have felt when the Kevorkian team showed up in Grand Rapids and told him everything was ‘scheduled and ready to go. ’”

The Michigan bishops also have released an unprecedented joint pastoral letter to the Catholics in the state of Michigan, entitled, Living and Dying According to the Voice of Faith. In the document, the seven bishops called on Catholics to reaffirm their commitment to life.

“Choosing death by one's own hand contradicts our deepest identity as sons and daughters of God,” the bishops wrote. “Such an action also conveys the tragic message to our family and friends that we reject their genuine love and our solidarity with them.”

Kevorkian Performs 100th Assisted Suicide

DETROIT—Dr. Jack Kevorkian assisted a 66-year-old man with lung cancer to kill himself and has now assisted 100 suicides, his attorney, Geoffrey Fieger, said.

Waldo Herman died March 13 at his Detroit home in the presence of the retired pathologist—one day after the Michigan House of Representatives adopted a bill targeting Kevorkian, who has been acquitted in three trials.

The bill would make assisted suicide a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and $10,000 in fines, or both. It now goes back to the Senate, where minor changes are expected to be adopted before it goes to Gov. John Engler, who is expected to sign it.

Kevorkian, 69, had for years refused to confirm the number of suicides he had assisted in.

When reached at his home, Kevorkian confirmed he was present at Herman's death, but declined further comment.

Detroit police said they had no information on Herman's death. There was no answer at the Wayne County medical examiner's office. (Pro-Life Infonet)

While reiterating that the conscious choice to end one's own life is always morally wrong, the bishops offered hope to those who fear the dying process.

“We proclaim a message of hope: no one has to die alone or unwanted, in terrible physical pain or psychological distress,” they wrote. “We put our faith and hope into concrete expression by promising to share our life journey with one another. As brothers and sisters in a family of faith, we live and die together.”

As the Michigan bishops and pro-life organizations educate and reach out to those in need, assisted suicide advocates are working to put the issue on the fall ballot. A group called Merian's Friends recently hired a firm to assist them in collecting enough signatures to force a vote on assisted suicide through a referendum.

Pro-life groups oppose the effort, supporting legislation to ban assisted suicide instead.

“We elect legislators to take the time to carefully consider these issues, hearing testimony for days, weeks, and even months,” said Right to Life of Michigan's Wilson. “The legislature should decide this issue conclusively, rather than giving the voters 30 seconds to decide this monumental decision at the ballot box.”

Though the Supreme Court ruled last summer that there is no constitutional “right to die,” the justices gave states the green light to experiment with assisted suicide. Thanks to that ruling, both sides expect the battle to continue in the legislature, the voting booth, and the courts. Meanwhile, Kevorkian, who claims to have assisted in the suicides of more than 100 people, shows no signs of slowing down.

Greg Chesmore writes from Bloomington, Ind.