In the last quarter century we have witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of headlines focusing on the “right-to-die” or euthanasia issue. Consider just a few of these:
• In 1985, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that all life-sustaining medical treatment can be withheld from terminally ill patients, whether incompetent or competent. In that ruling the court included feeding tubes as “medical treatment.”
• In 1985, a Virginia woman who killed her cancer-ridden husband with an ice pick was sentenced merely to two years’ probation and psychiatric treatment.
• The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in 1986 to allow a woman to stop the feeding of her comatose husband.
• In 1987, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled unanimously that an alert, mentally competent but dying woman, suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, a fatal nerve disorder, should have been allowed to order her respirator disconnected. The woman had died a few days before her case reached the Court. The same court ruled to allow a man to remove the feeding tube from his 32-year-old wife.
• A U.S. District Court in Rhode Island ruled in 1988 that the feeding tube could be removed from a 49-year-old woman. The woman was in a coma as a result of a brain hemorrhage, and since she could not swallow, she received nourishment and liquids through a feeding tube. Her family had sued in court to compel the hospital to terminate her food and water. The medical workers who were caring for the woman were unanimous in opposing the action, but the court ordered them to remove the tubes so the woman would starve to death.
• A man severely crippled by a 1985 motorcycle accident went to court in an attempt to gain the “right” to kill himself. In 1989, the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously ruled that he could kill himself by shutting off the breathing apparatus that kept him alive.
• The parents of Nancy Cruzen, a young woman who suffered severe brain damage in a 1983 car crash, spent three and a half years in court in an attempt to remove the feeding tube which was keeping her alive. Though severely disabled, Nancy was not comatose nor did she require any life-support equipment. She even smiled at funny stories and cried when visitors would leave. In spite of this, on December 14, 1990, County Circuit Court Judge Charles E. Teel, Jr., ordered Nancy’s caregivers to withhold all food and water. Twelve days later, the 33-year-old woman died of dehydration.
• On June 4, 1990, Jack Kevorkian claimed his first victim when he assisted in the administration of a lethal dosage of drugs to 54-year-old Janet Adkins. She was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and her own doctor said she had at least ten years of productive life ahead of her. She had never met or talked with Kevorkian until she arrived in Michigan two days before her death. All arrangements were made by her husband, Ron, (64) who subsequently became president of the Oregon Hemlock Society. In the year before her death, Janet Adkins and her family were counseled by a family therapist who was coordinator of the Oregon Hemlock Society. According to an aunt, “She did not want to be a burden to her husband and family” and a friend explained, “She felt it [her death] was a gift to her family, sparing them the burden of taking care of her” (“The Real Jack Kevorkian, International Anti-Euthanasia Task Force, http://www.iaetf.org/fctkev.htm). Kevorkian, who went on to participate in a reported 137 assisted suicides, does not have a license to practice medicine. His Michigan license was suspended in 1991 and his California license was suspended in 1993. According to the California Attorney General’s office, Kevorkian is “fundamentally unfit to practice medicine” (California Medical Board, Complainants Brief, 12/28/93, p. 19). Kevorkian proposed a “auction market for available organs” taken from “subjects” who are “hopelessly crippled by arthritis or malformations.” Part of the money from the dead disabled person’s auctioned organs could go to relatives whose financial burdens would be eased and “their standard of living enhanced.”
• A poll of adults conducted by CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll published January 1991 found that 58% believe doctors ought to be allowed to help terminally ill patients die if the patient asks for assistance.
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