Woman’s Decision to Die Pushes Assisted Suicide Back into Spotlight
DETROIT (AP) _ It was supposed to be simple. Bertram Harper, his terminally ill wife, Virginia, and her daughter flew from California to Michigan so Mrs. Harper could commit suicide.
Unlike California, Michigan laws didn’t prevent assisted suicide. The Harpers agreed on it. Mrs. Harper, 69, had prepared for it, choosing a procedure and ″recipe″ of sleeping pills published by The Hemlock Society, a suicide support group based in Eugene, Ore.
″We wanted to come here and do it quietly, peacefully,″ Harper, 73, said Friday, hours after a jury acquitted him of second-degree murder in his wife’s death.
Mrs. Harper, diagnosed with terminal liver cancer last Aug. 3, died Aug. 19 of suffocation in a hotel room in a Detroit suburb. She washed the pills down with coffee liqueur, pulled a plastic bag over her head and tied it loosely around her neck with a chain of rubber bands.
She became uncomfortable and several times asked that the bag be removed from her face. When she faded into unconsciousness, her husband pulled the bag over her face the final time.
Nine months later, Harper bemoaned a court battle he says he shouldn’t have had to endure. He said he’ll keep fighting in the hope others will be able to choose suicide without such clandestine planning.
″This is something that should be done open and aboveboard by the medical society,″ he said.
Mrs. Harper died 2 1/2 months after Janet Adkins, 54, an Alzheimer’s patient from Portland, Ore., used a Michigan doctor’s suicide machine.
Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a retired pathologist in suburban Royal Oak who connected Adkins to the machine, was cleared of first-degree murder in her death. He was barred from using the machine again.
The Harpers chose Michigan because the state has no specific laws against assisted suicide, though a bill is pending in the state Legislature. Assisted suicide is a felony in California. Twenty-five states have laws against it.
Friday’s verdict sent both sides clamoring for clarification of the law.
″Hundreds of people every year illegally help loved ones die and lawmakers should now take time to carefully modify the laws,″ said Derek Humphry, president and founder of the Hemlock Society.
The legislation pending in Michigan would make assisted suicide a felony, punishable by up to four years in prison.
″There’s no doubt that the whole tragedy of the situation is we have a very gray area in Michigan law,″ the measure’s sponsor, state Sen. Fred Dillingham, said Saturday.
State Rep. David Hollister opposes Dillingham’s bill, saying assisted suicide is an issue too complicated to handle with legislation alone.
″We have to come up with some kind of approach to evaluate it in a rational manner and bring in the best minds and have them think about it and discuss it, and not in the political pressure of the Capitol,″ Hollister said.
On Nov. 5, voters in Washington state decide on Initiative 119, which would make it legal for physicians to assist patients in suicide. Similar legislation is pending in the Oregon Legislature.
Initiative 119 would allow a conscious and mentally competent, terminally ill adult to voluntarily request in writing that a physician assist in death.
Dillingham said that raises myriad ethical questions.
″We’re all terminal,″ he said. ″Who would make that determination? I don’t think the doctor would want to do it.″
″It is so contrary to the basic foundation of our current common law, the ramifications are unbelievable,″ he said.
Diane McCade, spokeswoman for Washington Citizens for Death with Dignity, said Initiative 119 would let terminally ill patients choose death without fear of prosecution for their family or physician and in comfortable, familiar surroundings.
″People are not able to get the assistance they need and they often resort to very violent deaths,″ McCade said.
Harper said he just wants to get on with his life. He says that includes fighting to make physician-assisted suicide legal in California. A signature drive is planned to put an initiative on the 1992 ballot, he said.