When I can’t tie my bow-tie, tell a funny story, walk my dog, kiss someone special,” said a man dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), “I’ll know that life is over. It’s time to be gone.” For this terminally ill person, physician assisted death is how he will go.
Physician assisted death (PAD) is a relatively new phrase in the American lexicon. It is the law in two states, Oregon, 1994, and Washington State, 2008. A terminally ill patient residing in these states, competent and not clinically depressed, can ask for and receive from his doctor a prescription for medicine that, if ingested, ends life. PAD differs from euthanasia because in euthanasia the medical practitioner dispenses the lethal amount into the client.
Ironically, it was the actions of two radical euthanasia zealots—Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a pathologist, and Derek Humphry, the founder of the Hemlock Society—that led to the onset of the bitter debates in America regarding PAD. These clashes began in 1990 and continue to this day. They involve ethics, constitutional arguments, and ruthless policy battles waged in two dozen states.
From 1990 through 1997, Kevorkian drove to his clients in a battered Volkswagen bus. They had responded to ads placed in Michigan newspapers by Kevorkian hawking the “Thanatron,” his death device. It ended the lives of 130 ill persons—many not terminal, some clinically depressed. Tried four times in Michigan courts for assisting in suicide, he avoided conviction the first three times. However, he was convicted in 1997 for euthanizing a client whose illness (ALS) prevented him from taking his life. He not only took the client’s life; he videotaped the event and it was telecast on a 60 Minutes segment. It was used to convict him in the Michigan court.
Derek Humphry’s wife died of cancer, in great, unmitigated pain at the end. He believed that such agony was cruel and unnecessary and advocated euthanasia to end the lives of dying patients. Toward that end, he...