Thomas Youk

Thomas Youk, age 52, suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.

ALS gradually weakens nerves to muscles, causing difficulty in breathing, paralysis, and finally death.

Youk had suffered from ALS for two years and increasingly had trouble breathing and swallowing. He then contacted Dr. Jack Kevorkian from Michigan.

Kevorkian, called "Dr. Death" in the media, is the most well-known advocate of physician-assisted suicide for people suffering from incurable diseases like ALS. Dr. Kevorkian, a pathologist, claims that since 1990 he has assisted more than 100 such individuals to take their own lives. He even invented a suicide device he calls the "Mercitron." This enables a person to die peacefully by self-administering a lethal dose of potassium chloride provided by Kevorkian. The Michigan doctor argues that competent patients experiencing prolonged suffering from fatal diseases have a right to die if they so choose.

Kevorkian had been charged and tried in three assisted-suicide cases. But juries refused to find him guilty of homicide. Then in the fall of 1998, Thomas Youk asked Kevorkian to inject him with the potassium chloride. Unlike his other cases, Kevorkian himself would inject the lethal dose for the first time.

Challenging the laws against such "mercy killing," Kevorkian videotaped the entire procedure and made the tape available for broadcast on the "60 Minutes" TV program. Charged with first-degree murder, Kevorkian was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 10-25 years in prison.

Should Dr. Kevorkian be commended for standing up against laws that make peaceful, dignified deaths impossible for suffering patients who want the right to die? Or is "Dr. Death" promoting something that would inevitably lead society down a path ending with people being put to death against their will?


In general, euthanasia (YOUTH uhn ay zhuh) refers to merciful killing, or allowing hopelessly sick or injured persons to die in a relatively painless way. There are several forms of euthanasia:

1. Right to Refuse Treatment: A competent adult has the legal right to refuse treatment even if this will result in his or her death.

2. Double Effect: A patient may request his or her physician to administer powerful drugs such as morphine to ease unbearable pain and suffering, knowing this is also likely to hasten his or her death.

3. Passive Euthanasia: Under certain circumstances, family members may request that life-sustaining machines or treatment be stopped for patients with little or no hope of regaining consciousness.

4. Physician-Assisted Suicide: A physician assists in the suicide of a dying patient, usually by supplying him or her with a lethal drug and the means to take it. In the United States, only Oregon permits this practice today.

5. Active Euthanasia: A physician performs the death-causing act after determining the wishes of the patient or the patient's family. This form of euthanasia is illegal in every state, although only a few physicians like Dr. Kevorkian have been prosecuted.

Recent polls indicate that a majority of Americans favor physician-assisted suicide when unbearable pain is involved. But support drops when pain is not a factor and when doctors themselves administer lethal drugs to end a patient's life (active euthanasia).

The debate over euthanasia goes back at least to the time of Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician known as the Father of Medicine. The famous Hippocratic Oath says in part, "I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect." Some American medical schools still use the original Hippocratic Oath, but most have adopted other oaths, which may or may not permit physicians to participate in euthanasia.

During World War II, the Nazis perverted the idea of humane euthanasia. Nazi doctors started by euthanizing "impaired" adults and children and ended up participating in the mass murder of millions of Jews and others who they considered racially inferior.

Since World War II, The Netherlands has been the only country to permit euthanasia on a large scale. Euthanasia is still technically a crime in The Netherlands, but since the 1980s Dutch courts have allowed this practice if certain guidelines are met:

The patient must make an informed, free, and explicit request that is repeated over time.

The patient must be experiencing unbearable physical or psychological suffering that cannot be cured.

The patient's physician must consult with another doctor to confirm whether the request for assisted suicide or another form of euthanasia is appropriate.

In 1996, the Dutch Supreme Court released a study on euthanasia. The study found that nearly 10,000 requests for some form of euthanasia are received each year. About a third are granted. For most of these deaths, a doctor injects a patient with a lethal drug (active euthanasia).

The study found some disturbing facts. It showed that the guidelines have been stretched to include patients with long-term, but not fatal, diseases. It also found cases of non-voluntary euthanasia involving incompetent elderly persons, newborns with severe disabling defects, and even a 6-year-old with diabetes who died when his parents chose not to authorize regular injections of insulin. These developments illustrate what critics of the right to die call the "slippery slope," gradually leading to cases of individuals who seemingly have a "duty to die."

"Should We Have the Right to Die?"  

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