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Physician Assisted Suicide

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In today's society, one of the most controversial issues is physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill. Many people feel that it is wrong for people, regardless of their health condition, to ask their health care provider to end their life; while others feel it is their right to be able to choose how and when they die. When a physician is asked to help a patient into death, they have many responsibilities that come along with that single question. Among those responsibilities are: providing valid information as to the terminal illness the patient is suffering, educating the patient as to what their final options may be, making the decision of whether or not to help the patient into death, and also if they do decide to help, providing the lethal dose of medication that will end the patient's life. For those who believe physician-assisted suicide should be their choice, they feel it should be legalized because: they don't want to go through the suffering caused by the terminal illness; they fear the loss of their autonomy (independence); becoming a burden to their family or friends, and also the fear of dying alone. One the other hand those opposed to assisted suicide feel it goes against religious beliefs and medical ethics. They also believe that there is always the possibility that a miracle will occur and the patient will overcome the illness and also that the doctor could have provided the wrong prognosis/diagnosis to the patient. The strongest reason against physician-assisted suicide has been the idea that if assisted suicide becomes legal, it will get out of hand and target certain people in society, such as those with disabilities, or certain races.

In 1990, physician-assisted suicide became better known to the public when Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a retired pathologist, helped to assist his first patient into death (Landau 80). Kevorkian had created a machine, known as the "suicide machine", which was made up of three glass bottles connected to an IV. In the three bottles were saline solution, a sedative, and potassium chloride (Gay 45). When the patients felt they were ready to begin the process, they turned the machine on themselves and were first put to sleep by the sedative and then killed by the potassium chloride. According to one source, when people began hearing about the emergence of Dr. Kevorkian and his "suicide machine", many terminally ill patients began to fear their physician. The patients started believing that all physicians were out to assist them to death or try to talk them into physician-assisted suicide (Thomas 14). According to Kathlyn Gay, Kevorkian claimed that he had caused no death; he just helped with his patient's "last civil rights." He believes that doctors that don't help assist their patients are like the Nazi doctors during World War 2, those who used experiments on the Jewish people (50-51).

In a magazine article by James F. Keenan, he reports that, "Anyone familiar with Jack Kevorkian, M.D., who travels around the Michigan area providing physician-assisted suicide, ought not be surprised at the number of women he has helped die. Out of 43 deaths, 15 of his 'patients' were men, 28 were women" (Keenan 15). It was also reported by Keenan that Kevorkian's male patients had severe terminal illnesses that left them incapable of living, while the female patients suffered from breast cancer and other illnesses that are curable (16). In many cases involving female patients wanting to use Physician-Assisted suicide, it was found that most people felt their request was "emotional, unreflective, and immature" (Keenan 16). Many people were angered at what Kevorkian was doing and felt that he wasn't assisting the terminally ill. They believed that people should and could find an alternative method of relief for their illnesses (Gay 47). The Detroit Press reported that on, June 4, 1990, Janet Elaine Adkins, became the first patient Dr. Kevorkian assisted into death, as previously mentioned. The 54-year-old woman, from Portland, Oregon, who was a former college instructor, decided to commit suicide the day she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease (1997). Adkins contacted Kevorkian after hearing about his suicide machine' and asked for his help in assisting her into death, according to Kathlyn Gay. After hearing Adkins describe her illness, Kevorkian refused to help the patient and suggested that she try experimental drug treatments. After six months had gone by Adkins informed Dr. Kevorkian that the drug treatment had been unsuccessful and Kevorkian finally agreed to help with her request (44-45).

Adkins and her husband flew to Royal Oak, Mich., on June 3, 1990, for an interview with Kevorkian. On the basis of that one face-to-face encounter, the doctor concluded that Adkins' euthanasia request was rational. The following day, as her husband waited in a nearby motel, Adkins was hooked up intravenously to an inverted bottle of saline solution hanging from a metal frame in the back of Kevorkian's parked van. Acting on Kevorkian's instructions, Adkins pressed a button that shut off the flow of saline solution and opened the line of sodium pentothal, causing her to lose consciousness. After one minute, an automatic timer closed the pentothal line and released the contents of the third bottle. Adkins' heart stopped beating within six minutes. (Worsnop "Assisted Suicide" 157-158)

One source reports that the second and third assisted suicides occurred on, October 21, 1991. One patient, Sherry Miller, was a multiple-sclerosis victim, and the second patient, Marjorie Wantz, complained of a severe pelvic disorder; they died within one hour of each other in a secluded cabin forty miles outside of Detroit (Worsnop "Assisted Suicide Controversy" 405). Worsnop also reports that the autopsy preformed on Wantz showed no evidence of any pelvic disorder that she could have been suffering from. After hearing this information, the State Board of Medicine suspended Kevorkian's medical license on November 20, 1991 (Worsnop "Assisted Suicide Controversy" 405). Although Kevorkian's medical license was suspended, he still continued to assist his patients into death. In November 1992, he helped his sixth patient, a female, into death. After this death, the Michigan House of Representatives passed a bill making assisted suicide a felony, making it punishable by four years in a state prison (Gay 47). After the deaths of Wantz and Miller, many people in Michigan, and all over the world, became angered that nothing was done to stop Kevorkian. The State of Michigan eventually put a ban on assisted suicide. Kevorkian, for his part, announced March 6 that he planned to appeal Michigan's ban on assisted suicide to the U.S. Supreme Court. The American Civil Liberties

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