NCCB Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities
Kevorkian Goes to Prison
Convicted on murder and drug charges on March 26 [see February/March Life at Risk], Jack Kevorkian was sentenced on April 13 to a term of 10 to 25 years in prison.
Judge Jessica Cooper of Oakland County Circuit Court denied bail to the 70-year-old Kevorkian, remarking that his past statements indicate he will not "cease and desist" unless removed from society. She emphasized that the full sentence provided by state guidelines was appropriate in light of Kevorkian's simultaneous conviction on charges of unauthorized possession and delivery of a controlled substance [see page 3]. Kevorkian will be eligible for parole in six years and eight months [Washington Post, 4/14/99].
Kevorkian was taken to a maximum-security facility for assessment before being assigned to a permanent prison home, and isolated from other prisoners for his own protection. While he had said he would go on a hunger strike if imprisoned, Kevorkian has now agreed not to do this at present. "I told him to eat," says his lead attorney, Mayer Morganroth. "I need a body to take to the appellate courts" [Detroit Free Press, 4/16].
Opponents of assisted suicide praised the verdict and sentence, expressing relief that a man who has assisted over 130 suicides had been stopped. Members of the disability rights group Not Dead Yet, who attended each day of the trial, had said they feared "open season" on the disabled if Kevorkian were freed. "We are the potential victims," says NDY director Diane Coleman. "It is our lives at stake" [National Post (Canada), 3/25]. The American Medical Association said the sentence should be a "strong deterrent to those who would take the lives of patients prematurely."
Reactions of assisted suicide proponents were more complex. Leaders like Hemlock Society director Faye Girsh have consistently maintained that Kevorkian's killing of Thomas Youk "was so clearly not a crime" [Detroit News, 3/26]. On the other hand, "mainstream" groups have tried to distance themselves from a practitioner who may give their movement a bad name. Dr. Timothy Quill of Rochester, New York, widely seen as a kinder and more appealing physician-advocate for assisted suicide, now says Kevorkian's campaign was "kind of a sideshow or a distraction," and criticizes Kevorkian for "pushing it [the agenda] farther and farther" [New York Times, 3/30].
Even before the trial began, on March 12, Ms. Girsh gave a briefing at the National Press Club to offer legalization with "safeguards" as the alternative to Kevorkian's approach. "Do we want more Oregons or more Kevorkians?", she asked [Hemlock press release, 3/12]. On March 18, at another Washington press briefing, Dr. Quill joined Barbara Coombs Lee of Oregon Death with Dignity and other advocates in selling the same message.
This attempt to divorce Kevorkian from the mainstream movement poses some credibility problems, however. Dr. Quill and the Hemlock Society long ago crossed some of the same frontiers as Kevorkian: favoring lethal injections as well as assisted suicides in some cases, targeting the "incurably" as well as terminally ill, and so on. Oregon itself now seems ready to move from assisting suicide to active euthanasia, on the grounds that a more limited policy "discriminates" against physically disabled patients who cannot kill themselves. And one of Kevorkian's most widely criticized excesses -- assisting the suicides of patients he hardly knows -- is fairly common under the Oregon law. According to the Oregon Health Division, physicians who assist suicides in the state know their patients on average about one-tenth as long as physicians who care for the dying without assisting suicide [see February/March Life at Risk].
Four States Confront Assisted Suicide
Several states' 1999 legislative sessions have seen action on assisted suicide, but in only one case was there a trend in favor of the practice.
In Hawaii, proposals to legalize assisted suicide were expected to receive consideration because legalization was recommended last year by a majority of the governor's Blue Ribbon Panel on Living and Dying with Dignity. However, such proposals are dead for the year, and the legislature is instead considering resolutions on encouraging hospice care and pain control -- areas where the Panel's approval was unanimous [Hawaii Catholic Herald, 3/5/99].
In Maryland, four years of lobbying by opponents of assisted suicide paid off when the state legislature in April approved a new ban on the practice. Until now the state had no statute on the issue, but only a common law tradition which the state attorney general had said provides a weak basis for enforcement. The new ban, approved by the House of Delegates 78-to-54, makes it a felony to aid another person's suicide; the penalty is up to one year in prison and/or a $10,000 fine. The bill distinguishes assisted suicide from withdrawal of medical treatment, and from pain control efforts that may unintentionally hasten death. Earlier the Senate had approved a stronger bill 28-to-19, but on April 8 it accepted the House's changes and sent the bill to Governor Glendening [Washington Post, 3/4 and 4/9; Catholic Standard, 4/1].
In Oregon, the state Senate on April 26 approved a bill to clarify various features of the "Death with Dignity Act" approved by the voters in 1994. Among other things, SB 491 seeks to clarify who counts as a state "resident" for purposes of the assisted suicide law; allows the state to charge the patient's estate for any costs involved if he or she undergoes an assisted suicide in a public place such as a state park; and clarifies the rights of health care facilities that object to assisted suicide on moral or religious grounds [The Oregonian, 4/2 and 4/27]. Whether the bill is helpful on this last point is a matter of debate. While the bill makes it clearer that Catholic and other conscientiously opposed hospitals may forbid physicians to "participate" in assisted suicide on their premises, it also narrowly defines "participation" so physicians may still engage in some preparatory steps and make referrals to other physicians for assisted suicide. The bill now goes to the House, which may also consider a bill to forbid funding assisted suicide in the Oregon Health Plan.
In California, an Oregon-style legalization bill has received committee approval for the first time. A.B. 1592, sponsored by Assemblywoman Dion Aroner (D-Berkeley), was approved by the Assembly's Judiciary Committee 8-to-7 on April 20. Assemblywoman Audie Bock of the Green Party, saying she was "very conflicted" about the legislation, at first voted to kill it but then switched her vote to let it pass out of committee. In hearings the bill's opponents included disability rights advocates and the California Medical Association. It will be taken up next by the Appropriations Committee [AP, 4/20 and 4/21].
Polls and More Polls
On the same day that a California legislative committee was voting to legalize physician-assisted suicide, a new Field Poll was released claiming that 70% of the state's voters support the practice [Reuters, 4/22]. However, the Field Poll also showed 68% support for California's euthanasia referendum in mid-September of 1992 -- just a few weeks before the voters defeated it, 54% to 46% [Sacramento Bee, 9/23/92].
Two recent Internet polls give conflicting stories. In a "quickvote" poll on CNN Interactive in mid-April, 67% of those participating said that Jack Kevorkian's sentence of 10 to 25 years in prison is "too harsh." But in USA Weekend's "quick poll" around the same time, 2451 visitors were asked: "Regardless of Kevorkian's conviction, would you favor legalizing assisted suicide?" -- and 73% said no, with only 26% favoring legalization [www.cnn.com and cgi.usaweekend.com].
VERBATIM: Judge Jessica Cooper's remarks when sentencing Jack Kevorkian to prison
This is a court of law and you said you invited yourself here to take a final stand. But this trial was not an opportunity for a referendum. The law prohibiting euthanasia was specifically reviewed and clarified by the Michigan Supreme Court several years ago in a decision involving your very own cases, sir. So the charge here should come as no surprise to you. You invited yourself to the wrong forum.
Well, we are a nation of laws, and we are a nation that tolerates differences of opinion because we have a civilized and a nonviolent way of resolving our conflicts that weighs the law and adheres to the law. We have the means and the methods to protest the laws with which we disagree. You can criticize the law, you can write or lecture about the law, you can speak to the media or petition the voters. But you must always stay within the limits provided by the law. You may not break the law. You may not take the law into your own hands.
In point of fact, the issue of assisted suicide was addressed in this state by referendum just last November. And while the proponents of that were out campaigning, you were with Thomas Youk. And the voters of the state of Michigan said "no." And they said no two-and-a-half to one.
But we are not talking about assisted suicide here. When you purposely inject another human being with what you know to be a lethal dosage of poison, that, sir, is murder. And the jury so found.
Now, you've vilified the jury and the justice system in this case. But every member of that jury had compassion and empathy for Thomas Youk. They had a higher duty that went beyond personal sympathy and emotion. They took an oath to follow the law, not to nullify it. And I am bound by a very similar oath, sir.
No one is unmindful of the controversy and emotion that exists over end-of-life issues and pain control. And I assume that the debate will continue in a calm and reasoned forum long after this trial and your activities have faded from public memory.
But this trial is not about that controversy. The trial was about you, sir. It was about you and the legal system. And you have ignored and challenged the Legislature and the Supreme Court. And moreover, you've defied your own profession, the medical profession. You stood before this jury and you spoke of your duty as a physician. You repeatedly speak of treating patients to relieve their pain and suffering. You don't have a license to practice medicine...You may not treat patients. You may not possess, let alone inject drugs into another human being.
Now, the reason the guidelines in this particular case are so high is because of the drug conviction in Count 2. And everyone seems to have glossed over this particular offense. But you had no right to be in control of any type of a controlled substance, let alone deliver it to anyone else.
There are several valid considerations in sentencing. One of them is rehabilitation. But based upon the fact that you publicly and repeatedly announced your intentions to disregard the laws of this state, I question whether you will ever cease and desist. The fact that your attorney in a presentence investigation says you're out of business from this point forward doesn't negate your past statements.
Now, another consideration and perhaps even a stronger factor in sentencing is deterrence. This trial was not about the political or moral correctness of euthanasia. It was all about you, sir. 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.
So let's talk just a little bit more about you specifically. You were on bond to another judge when you committed this offense, 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. [AP, 4/13/99]
Background: Reactions to Kevorkian's Murder Conviction
While some assisted suicide proponents have criticized Jack Kevorkian's murder conviction, and even urged changes in homicide laws to allow his brand of lethal injections, others have joined opponents in praising the verdict -- to distance themselves from Kevorkian and shift attention to more appealing leaders for the cause:
"That was a harsh sentence a Michigan judge imposed on Dr. Jack Kevorkian this week... But quibbling over whether the sentence should have been a few years lighter pales against the important message sent by Judge Jessica Cooper's tough sentence and blistering statement to Dr. Kevorkian. No one can openly flout the law on murder and expect to get away with it... That such patients feel they must turn to Dr. Kevorkian is a glaring indictment of our society's failure to allow assisted suicide in rigorously controlled medical settings...
"The virtue of the harsh sentence -- in a case that Dr. Kevorkian intends to appeal -- is that it may put him out of action and let leadership of the assisted-suicide movement pass to people with sounder judgment." - Editorial, New York Times, 4/15/99
"Dr. Jack Kevorkian's conviction makes it clear that our laws must be changed. It is not right to call an act 'murder' when a compassionate doctor follows the insistent request of a dying man and his family...
"There will be cases like Youk's, where a person cannot swallow, digest or even lift spoon to mouth. In those rare cases, a lethal injection is appropriate...
"The law must change to permit an exemption to murder for doctors who provide a peaceful death to a suffering, irreversibly-ill adult who makes a competent, repeated request for an assisted death." - Faye Girsh, president of Hemlock Society USA, in USA Today, 3/29
"Whatever one thinks of assisted suicide, there is something demonic about a freelance death peddler who seems -- as Dr. Kevorkian has over the years -- to be so energized by such morbid work. That juries kept acquitting him and that he acquired a kind of popular following should not obscure the fact that Dr. Kevorkian's crusade, despite his medical degree, had nothing to do with the practice of medicine." - Editorial, Washington Post, 3/30
"After conviction, Kevorkian accused the jury of cruelty, and society of corruption. That sad note, like the howl of a rabid wolf, expresses a distemper that cannot be entirely understood. But doing so isn't necessary. It's enough to understand that American society wants to grow into the notion of assisted suicide, not be dragged to it."
- Editorial, USA Today, 3/29