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Michigan Panel Recommends Legalizing Assisted Suicides

By Edward Walsh
The Washington Post

As the criminal trial of Jack Kevorkian resumed in Detroit, a troubled and deeply divided citizens' commission narrowly recommended Monday that Michigan become the first place in the world to legalize physician-assisted suicide.

By a vote of nine to seven with four abstentions, the Michigan Commission on Death and Dying asked the state legislature to authorize the practice but also called for an elaborate set of restrictions to safeguard against abuse.

The draft measure the commission recommended would authorize physician-assisted suicide for people 18 or older who suffer from a "terminal condition" likely to result in death within six months or who suffer from an "irreversible suffering condition" involving "subjectively unbearable or unacceptable suffering from a physical condition." It would require a physician to be present for the suicide, but only after a detailed process involving consultations with another physician, a psychiatrist or psychologist, a social worker and an expert in pain management.

The nonbinding vote in a conference room at Michigan State University here climaxed a year of deliberations by the commission, which was created by the same law under which Kevorkian is being prosecuted for his role in the suicide of a 30-year-old, terminally ill Detroit man last August. But it will not end the debate on the emotional issue, a subject of growing national controversy ever since the 65-year-old retired pathologist began his crusade to legalize physician-assisted suicide in 1990. Since then he has helped 20 people to kill themselves.

The legislature must act on the recommendation before November, when the existing ban expires.

No country or state has legalized assisted suicide, although the practice is commonplace in Holland. Oregon may vote on an assisted-suicide measure in November and a lawsuit in Washington state seeks to legalize the practice.

O'Hair said that some of the people Kevorkian has helped to commit suicide would not have qualified under the two tests set out in the commission's proposal and that Kevorkian's procedures "don't even approach the standards that we have recommended."

Taking aim at Kevorkian, the commission also recommended the same punishment as in existing law -- up to four years imprisonment and a $2,000 fine -- for anyone who assists in a suicide without following legally mandated procedures.