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Despite Kevorkian Acquittal, Doctors Still Wary of Assisting Suicide With AM-Assisted Suicide

May 4, 1994

DETROIT (AP) _ A terminally ill man in dreadful pain called Dr. B. Elliot Gryson more than two years ago and asked, ″What would happen if I took 50 Percodan?″

″That would be enough,″ Gryson replied.

The Grand Rapids doctor-turned-lawyer used to get calls like that monthly. But he hasn’t given information on a lethal dose of the painkiller since Michigan passed a law banning assisted suicide a year ago. He’s afraid of being prosecuted.

Monday’s acquittal of Dr. Jack Kevorkian on assisted-suicide charges in the death of a man with Lou Gehrig’s disease will encourage few, if any, physicians to openly help patients kill themselves, Gryson said.

″Physicians don’t want to take any chances of going through what Dr. Kevorkian went through,″ he said Tuesday in a telephone interview. ″I think it will take a very determined physician to be willing to take the risks that are still present in Michigan.″

Gryson and other advocates of doctor-assisted suicide say it will take legislation or a constitutional amendment before physicians more readily help terminally ill people kill themselves.

The Michigan law banning assisted suicide carries a possible four-year prison term and $2,000 fine.

Lynn Mills, an anti-abortion activist who is also active in the campaign against assisted suicide, said she plans to lobby lawmakers to pass an even stricter law.

″If a law specifically designed to stop Jack doesn’t stop him ... how does anybody think regulating (assisted suicide) is going to stop an overzealous doctor of any kind?″ she said.

The American Medical Association opposes assisted suicide on the ″most basic of ethical principals - that physicians do no harm,″ said Dr. Nancy W. Dickey, the AMA’s secretary-treasurer.

Ken Shapiro is a 51-year-old East Lansing cancer patient who says he wants the option of assisted suicide if his pain gets too great.

″Nobody wants to blow their brains out. Everyone wants to have a peaceful, dignified death. Unfortunately, it’s not going to happen for a lot of us,″ he said.

He said Kevorkian’s acquittal, ″is a cause for a lot of hope.″

Dr. Norman Bolton, a surgeon at Sinai Hospital in Detroit, said terminally ill patients sometimes save prescription pills until they have enough to take in one lethal dose.

″Sometimes the doctor even knows the patient is saving up,″ Bolton said.

Gryson also said doctors prescribe potential overdoses to terminally ill patients who request it ″more frequently than we realize.″

Gryson, Bolton and Shapiro were among those whose lawsuit against the state last year resulted in the assisted suicide being overturned as unconstitutional. That ruling, along with two others striking down the law, are before the Michigan Court of Appeals.

In Seattle on Tuesday, a federal judge struck down a Washington state law barring doctor-assisted suicide.

U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein ruled Washington’s law violated the right to equal protection by barring a doctor from helping a patient commit suicide, while permitting a terminally ill person to refuse life support.

Despite Kevorkian’s acquittal, Michigan assisted-suicide advocates believe doctors are still stymied by the state law.

″This is not going to make a big change in anybody’s practice, except the prosecutors realizing they are never going to get a conviction,″ Bolton said.

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