Kevorkian, Dr. Death, Charged with Murder

(3 December 1998) — On Sunday, 22 November 1998, CBS's "60 Minutes" broadcast a video in which Dr. Jack Kevorkian administered a lethal injection to Thomas Youk, a 52 year old man with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Dr. Kevorkian shared the video with CBS to push US society another step down the road toward legalized euthanasia.

Prior to the Youk case, Kevorkian has not administered a lethal injection. Instead, he has provided those requesting his services with a "suicide machine" which was operated by the person requesting the suicide.

"I want a showdown. I want to be prosecuted for euthanasia. I want to prove this is not a crime," stated Dr. Kevorkian.

In the Youk case, Kevorkian administered a lethal injection of barbituates to Mr. Youk. Dr. Kevorkian has been stripped of his right to practice medicine in the state of Michigan.

David Gorcya, the Oakland County, Michigan prosecutor assigned to the Kevorkian case, brought a number of charges against Dr. Kevorkian—first degree murder, illegally administering a controlled substance, as well as, charges under Michigan's new assisted suicide law which was passed on 1 September 1998.

Kevorkian is clearly guilty under the law. According to Gorcya, "His real purpose was to terminate [Youk's] life and that, under the law, is criminal intent. When you look at the premeditated and deliberate fashion in which he ended the life, that clearly fits under our statutes in the state of Michigan."

However, conviction will only occur if the Michigan jury which hears the case follows the letter of the law. Kevorkian has been tried by his peers on four previous occasions and each time he has been acquitted.

The facts in this most recent Kevorkian case have caused The Globe and Mail to call once again for a legislative response to the euthanasia question.

The Globe and Mail's editorial on 24 November 1998 stated, "...the solution to Dr. Kevorkian's challenge is not another trial, but sensible legislation. It should clearly lay out how terminally ill people may declare that they want help to end their own life, and under which narrow circumstances a board of doctors may legally extend such assistance. This is what NDP Svend Robinson once proposed in a private-member's bill, which the government shamefully let die...Mr. Robinson's sensible legislation should be reintroduced, so that Parliament can discuss in an honest and open way cases like Mr. Latimer's." CCD opposes attempts to legalize assisted suicide.

CCD's Position

CCD does not object on principle to such legislation in the same way that some churches and "right to life" movements have; however, we do have very strong practical objections concerning how such legislation could operate without endangering persons with disabilities.

M.P. Svend Robinson's Bill C-304 attempted to confine eligibility for assisted suicide to terminally ill persons. Our very mortality provides that life itself is a terminal condition. Persons like Stephen Hawking, with incurable progressive disabilities like ALS, the muscular dystrophies, or multiple sclerosis, can be seen as having a terminal illness, although it is very difficult to say, if left to live, how long their lives may be.

Assisted suicide legislation in America attempted to narrow the definition by requiring the medical prognosis to be death in six months or less, and then foundered on doctors' inability to predict with any confidence, death in a specific time period. Because of this problem, the broader definition of terminal illness remains to target persons with a wide variety of potentially life shortening conditions.

In a world with such legislation, social resources would continue to be organized to prevent suicide for most people (i.e. crisis counseling phone lines), but they would exist side-by-side with new services to facilitate and assist suicide for persons with disabilities.

Legal safeguards, similar to that called for in Robinson's Bill, requiring the patient's request and voluntary consent, already exist in Holland. The 1990 Remmelink report, based on self-reporting by all doctors under immunity from prosecution showed how such safeguards may operate. In Holland, of about 12,000 cases where doctors intentionally caused death in 1990, approximately 6,000 or one half were without the patient's consent. As Holland is not Canada, it may be that vulnerable devalued people would be in even greater danger of involuntary euthanasia in Canada.

Assisted suicide proponents have gone far beyond terminal illness in describing "beneficiaries" of their legislative proposals, now including "hopelessly ill", or "desperately ill". The "benefits" of Holland's medically assisted suicide have already been extended to disabled infants and others not competent to consent to these decisions. Canadian ethicist Eike-Henner Kluge has predicted a Charter challenge to extend the "benefits" of assisted suicide to those not competent to consent in this country.

Senator Sharon Carstairs' Bill S-13 would have sanctioned doctors with-holding or with-drawing life-sustaining treatment from person with, or anticipating, a life-threatening condition (such as AIDS) and allow a spouse, companion or relative to consent to such a decision if the person is not competent or able to communicate his or her consent.

Thankfully, Senator Carstairs' Bill died on the order paper, as did Svend Robinson's proposal. Both attempts at legislation were probably well intentioned, but neither took good account of the devalued and vulnerable situation of persons with disabilities in our society, and the importance of Criminal Code sanctions as value markers.