THE SHADOW OF KEVORKIAN
By Tamara Audi – free press staff writer
Detroit Free Press, MI
May 29 2007
He’s left the death-on-demand activists in a bind
LOS ANGELES — As Jack Kevorkian, 79, prepares to re-enter the national
spotlight this week after eight years in prison, assisted-suicide
advocates are doing all they can to distance themselves from the man
called Dr. Death.
His release from a Michigan prison Friday — one week before a planned
California vote on whether to join Oregon as the only states to allow
assisted death for the terminally ill — could not come at a more
critical or inopportune time for the movement, which has worked for
years to legalize the practice and shed the ghoulish persona many
associate with Kevorkian and his suicide machine.
Kevorkian — who forced the nation to squarely confront end-of-life
choices for the suffering and terminally ill, and who said he actively
helped 130 people to die — is now a pariah.
To advocates, he is like the embarrassing dinner guest who ruined
your last party with spilt wine and a drunken rant — Kevorkian’s
name is rarely, if ever, mentioned.
"He’s the equivalent of a back-alley abortionist," said Steve Hopcraft,
a Sacramento lobbyist working to pass California’s assisted-suicide
proposal, echoing a common sentiment.
Added Lloyd Levine, a sponsor of the California proposal: "Kevorkian
is exactly why we need to pass this law.
"He operated with flagrant disregard for the law and took the law
into his own hands. We cannot distance ourselves from Dr. Jack
Praise from associate
Neal Nicol, a Kevorkian associate present at nearly 100 assisted
suicides, said today’s activists should be thanking Kevorkian, not
"Had Jack not been here and did what he did, they wouldn’t even
be talking about assisted suicide in California," said Nicol of
Advocates have been pushing for an assisted-suicide law in California
for a decade. But proposals never survived legislative committee
debates. Now, advocates say they are closer than ever to getting a
vote in the California Assembly. If passed, the proposal would still
have to go to the California Senate and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
for approval before it became law.
"We are definitely closer than we’ve ever been" to getting a law
passed, said Barbara Lee, president of Oregon-based Compassion &
Choices, the leading national organization pushing for such laws.
Lee’s group has taken the fight from Kevorkian’s brazen media stunts
and ramshackle Volkswagen bus into the courts and state legislatures
and onto public ballots.
The group hired lobbyists and garnered support in some unlikely places:
politicians, doctors, religious leaders, a Nobel Prize winner and a
well-known activist for people with disabilities.
It assembled terminally ill patients to speak publicly. And cited
polls showing public support to legalize aid-in-dying. In doing
so, the group has earned the ire and criticism from the powerful
right-to-life movement, and the Catholic Church, which has denounced
legalizing assisted suicide as promoting a "culture of death."
For all that effort, so far, Compassion & Choices has managed to get
assisted suicide legalized only in Oregon.
A look at Oregon
That law, according to state records, has resulted in the suicides
of 292 people since it was first employed in 1998 through last year.
Suicides under the law peaked in 2006, with 45 patients choosing to
end their lives early. Supporters say fears that hundreds would flock
to Oregon to end their lives proved unfounded.
But critics of the Oregon law say the numbers are incomplete and
don’t tell the whole story.
Other efforts, more recently in Hawaii, have failed. But advocates
contend the absence of such laws encourage the terminally ill to take
matters into their own hands.
If Kevorkian left any positive legacy, they say, it was to show the
lengths people will go to end suffering, Lee said.
"If people are motivated to travel across the country in their dying
to die an ignominious death in the back of a Volkswagen van, you know
that person is really desperate," Lee said.
Marilyn Golden, an opponent of the California proposal and a policy
analyst with the Disability Rights and Education Defense Fund, said
she’s not surprised her adversaries would try to distance themselves
from Kevorkian. But Golden said she sees little difference between
Kevorkian’s methods and a legalized form of doctor-assisted suicide.
Both ways, she said, are dangerous.
"People should remember that all doctors are not saints," Golden said.
The grays of the issue
Before his 1999 conviction for second-degree murder, Kevorkian claimed
he actively helped 130 people die. He even videotaped one death,
which aired on national television.
The state revoked his medical license in 1991 after he had conducted
five assisted suicides.
Ultimately, Kevorkian’s actions helped motivate other right-to-die
activists — the very activists who now criticize his controversial
"I thought he was crazy," said UCLA researcher and disabilities-rights
activist Alan Toy. "But it’s that kind of insane, whacked behavior
that caused me to come around and say we need …
The California Compassionate Choices Act would allow doctors to
prescribe lethal medication to patients with three months or less
Another supporter of the proposal, Paul Boyer, won the Nobel Prize
for chemistry in 1997 and lost his son after a prolonged and painful
death to kidney cancer in 2001. Douglas Boyer, who was 54 when he died,
became an advocate for physician-assisted suicide.
In the years since, Boyer, 88, has taken up his son’s cause, writing
polite letters to legislators from his Los Angeles-area home, a gentle
counterpoint to Kevorkian’s brash methods.
But his views of Dr. Death are as complicated as the issue itself. He
views Kevorkian in grays, not black and white.
"I felt what he did was overstep some of the rules of society,"
Boyer said. But ultimately, "it is the rules of society that should