Politics & Prejudices: The right to die revisted

Twenty years ago, Detroit was almost as famous for assisted suicide as it was for cars, thanks to Dr. Jack Kevorkian and his flamboyant attorney, Geoffrey Fieger.

Kevorkian wasn't the only doctor who thought hopelessly suffering patients who wanted out of their misery should have the right to ask a physician to help them die.

He wasn't even the only one who helped them do it. But he was the only one who did it publicly, openly, and spat in the eye of the establishment. Kevorkian was a journalist's dream. He couldn't have cared less about being politically or socially correct. His antics were the stuff dreams were made of.

His rusty Volkswagen van! His Rube Goldberg suicide machine! His odd rants about the Pythagoreans! He cared nothing for money, constantly wearing the same old blue sweater he'd bought for $2 at the Salvation Army.

He was a delightfully authentic crank, brilliantly defended and marketed by Fieger as the kindly angel of death.

But he was also on to a vitally important issue. Medical science had progressed to the point where it could keep lots of people alive who no longer had much or any quality of life.

Many just wanted to die, and wanted a doctor to stop them from making a mess of it. Kevorkian, who hated hypocrisy, not only decided that he would do that, but that he would rub it in the establishment's face. Fortunately for him, he found Fieger.

Had the dynamic duo not met up, odds are that some early judge and jury would have locked Kevorkian up as criminally insane.

But Fieger, who studied drama in his youth, knew how to script a movie. Kevorkian was none too dumb either. In the beginning, he videotaped hours of consultations with his clients. They detailed their piteous sufferings, the hopelessness of their cases, and the cold, callous indifference of the medical profession.

Shrewdly, Fieger selected juries with a large proportion of older folks and others who might have seen people die in agony.

When those videotapes were shown, the ballgame was over. After five acquittals and one prosecutor defeated because he wouldn't stop persecuting Kevorkian, Dr. Death had won.

Metro Detroit prosecutors threw in the towel, and announced they would no longer chase Kevorkian. Twenty years ago, physician-assisted suicide — at least as practiced by one Jack Kevorkian — had become de facto legal in these parts.

However, the one thing Kevorkian couldn't stand was success. He needlessly ratcheted the ante up to euthanasia. He did in a man dying from Lou Gehrig's disease, fired Fieger, and announced he'd defend himself. That got him convicted of second-degree murder.

They took him off to prison in 1999, and that was that for his crusade. After he failed to make good on a promise to starve himself to death, he served eight years and was let out in 2007, after he promised not to assist in any more deaths.

Half-forgotten, having wrecked his cause in Michigan, he finally died five years ago. Kevorkian's self-destruction, however, did nothing to change the basic problem. He may actually have unintentionally done a great deal of good by spurring physicians to get more serious about pain management.

The hospice movement also took off — in part as a more establishment-friendly alternative to Kevorkian.

Yet what about those people who weren't about to die, but wanted to? Oregon became the first state to allow doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of medication for the terminally ill.

That was in 1997. Since then, some form of physician-assisted suicide has been legalized in Washington, California, and Vermont. Meanwhile, courts in Montana have decided it should be legal.

However, none of that does any good for people in Michigan who are suffering and ready to make their final exit.

Finally, earlier this month, two Democratic state representatives dared to reopen the now-dormant debate. Rep. Tom Cochran (D-Mason) and Sam Singh (D-East Lansing) introduced a bill, HB 5802, that is essentially a replica of Oregon's "Death With Dignity" act.

Basically, it would allow a physician to prescribe drugs that a sane and terminally ill patient could use to end his or her life. It includes heavy penalties for anyone convicted of coercing someone to end their life. "This is not an assisted suicide bill," Cochran told me.

"This is a bill that recognizes our right to self-determination," he added. Singh and Cochran think that every adult should have the right to make this determination for themselves.

That makes perfect sense, even if your religion tells you that people shouldn't end their horrible suffering.

The United States of America is a free society — and one where no one is supposed to be able to inflict their religious beliefs on anyone else. Our civic holy writ is the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, and all that flows from them.

Years ago, when I was covering Kevorkian for a wide variety of national media, Fieger said something rather profound.

"I'm totally pro-choice," he told me, "but this is a right we should have had first. When you choose abortion, you are making decisions for another potential life. Here, you are deciding just for yourself."

Singh and Cochran's bill isn't ever likely to get a hearing, let alone a vote, and they know it. Republicans control every branch of state government. Right-wing religious groups probably have enough clout with them to kill any such bill.

But times are changing, and "we just wanted to start the conversation," Singh said. Both men are expected to be re-elected to a final two-year term this fall. After that, they hope to see what they can do during their final two years.

Kevorkian, by the way, always thought there would be fewer suicides among the elderly if they knew they had a right to do this if things ever got really bad: "They'd see it as insurance."

And years ago, he told me, in his typical charming way, that someday suicide might not be seen only as a right but a duty. "You're a baby boomer, right?" he said from a jail cell. He noted there were a lot fewer Generation Xers. "Do you think they are going to shell out two-thirds of their incomes to keep you on machines?"

Old Jack's dead, but we're not getting any younger, and we are living longer. We do need to restart that conversation ... soon.

This election isn't over yet

Granted, Donald Trump has had a terrible month. Not only has the sheer emptiness and ugliness of his world view become totally apparent, watching him try to run a campaign is like watching a duck try to have sex with a football.

But there's still a major test ahead.

Millions of Americans (the ones with normal lives) don't really start paying attention to presidential campaigns until the first televised presidential debate, which will be at Hofstra University on Sept. 26.

First debates are always the most important. Trump may, indeed, come across as a windy, vulgar boor, and if he does, that may be the ballgame — especially if Hillary Clinton manages to scrape up a little charisma. But what if Trump manages to exhibit his sometimes roguish outsider, take-charge charm?

What Clinton comes across — as she sometimes does — as the nasty, know-it-all junior high school assistant principal in charge of detention? What if the moderators press her on her emails and her penchant for chasing down every last buck she can make — and Trump manages to sound like a leader?

I'm not predicting that will happen. But it could. Those who don't want the nation destroyed shouldn't stop worrying yet.

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