Dr. Death pushes his luck


HAS DR. DEATH finally gone too far?

You would think so, when news stories indicate that one of the deaths he presided over in recent days was that of a woman who frequently accused her husband of abuse, who was depressed, dangerously overweight and probably addicted to prescription drugs, who did not suffer from a terminal disease and who had a history of seeking out celebrity doctors.

But despite the fact that Michigan, his home state, has revoked his medical license, Jack Kevorkian has proved to be adept at evading punishment. The county prosecutor who failed to get a conviction in four tries was defeated earlier this month by a primary opponent who accused him of wasting taxpayers' money in a futile attempt to put Dr. Kevorkian behind bars.

From the time he first grabbed headlines in June 1990 by assisting in the death of an Oregon woman diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, Dr. Kevorkian has been confounding the medical and ethical establishment. At the same time, a significant slice of public opinion has shown solid support for his macabre activities -- a factor that came into play when those Michigan juries refused to convict him of criminal activity.

But responding to public opinion surveys is one thing and casting a vote is another. When voters in Washington state went to the polls in 1991, they defeated a measure that would have legalized physician-assisted suicide despite polls showing strong support. Campaign workers for the initiative pinned some of the blame for the loss on Jack Kevorkian, who had assisted in the deaths of two women shortly before election day -- and thus, in one observer's words, "put a face on the fears" of legalizing the procedure.

Legal safeguards

Like many of his other "patients," those two women would not have qualified under the state's proposal or under a similar Oregon measure that later won voter approval. Although these people suffered from chronic medical conditions, their diagnoses did not meet the definition of "terminal" -- cases in which death is expected within a defined period of time, usually six months.

Neither was there any assurance to the public that other safeguards were in place, such as second opinions on the patient's competence to make such a decision from physicians who have an established relationship with the patient.

Curiously enough, five years later Dr. Kevorkian's popularity and apparent invincibility to legal consequences may now be turning him from a liability into an advantage for the legalization movement.

After all, if physician-assisted suicide were legal, it could be regulated and physicians could be prosecuted for aiding in the deaths of people like Judith Curren, the Massachusetts nurse whose turbulent marriage and drug history have raised questions not just about Dr. Kevorkian's judgment but also about the role her psychiatrist husband played in her decision to die.

Judith Curren's case is troubling for many reasons. An unnamed Massachusetts police officer familiar with her frequent reports of spousal abuse told reporters, "As soon as I heard about it, I had a sick feeling in my stomach."

A physician who had seen Mrs. Curren several times over the past several years told the Boston Globe that he believed she was suffering more from drug addiction than from chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia, the diseases she said were making her life unbearable. He noted that in her consultations with him, she complained of depression and abuse from her husband, but did not mention chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia.

Like a heroin addict

When the physician told Mrs. Curren he would continue treating her only if she signed up for a detoxification program, she refused. Despite that, she continued to call him in order to beg for stronger doses of medication.

"This was no different from a heroin addict," said the clinician, who asked not to be named. "The question for Kevorkian has got to be, if a heroin addict came to him, would he help him kill himself?"

Good question. Jack Kevorkian seems to have his own rules for determining what makes life worth living.

Unfortunately, those standards don't take into account things like the effect of Mrs. Curren's suicide on her two young daughters. Nor does he seem bothered by the fact that taking a patient's word for something -- such as her apparent assertion to him that domestic problems were not affecting her decision to die -- could be blatantly contradicted by police reports extending back several years.

Judith Curren was clearly miserable. But was suicide the only answer? And can her misery, whether psychological or physical or both, justify a physician's assistance in such a case?

Not even supporters of legalization would go that far. But Dr. Death did -- and probably will again, given his apparent lack of regrets.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 8/25/96

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