`Mercy killer' puts man to death on TV

AMERICA'S LEGAL establishment was yesterday considering the latest challenge from Dr Jack Kevorkian, the militant campaigner for euthanasia, who was shown on television administering what he said was a fatal injection to a terminally ill patient.

The short film, which was aired on the CBS Sunday evening documentary programme 60 Minutes, could be brought as evidence to a murder charge, which is exactly what Dr Kevorkian would like.

The film was almost surreal in its calm. It showed Thomas Youk, a 52- year-old sufferer from Lou Gehrig's disease, repeatedly consenting to end his life. Barely able to move or speak, Mr Youk none the less left no doubt about his intentions. He twice signed a letter instructing Dr Kevorkian to end his life, and - after the doctor had suggested a week's delay to make up his mind absolutely - he had his brother call back only two days later to hasten his end.

The film then showed Dr Kevorkian administer first a strong sedative, then a muscle relaxant, and finally - with Mr Youk apparently unconscious and his head lolling backwards - a heart-stopping injection of potassium.

While the film was visually unsensational, the commentary was ghoulish, with the 60 Minutes presenter, Mike Wallace, quizzing the doctor at each stage: "Is he dead now?" and the doctor replying: "He's dying now."

Afterwards, Mr Wallace asked: "You killed him?" "I did," said Dr Kevorkian. "But it could be manslaughter, not murder. It's not necessarily murder. But it doesn't bother me what you call it. I know what it is. This could never be a crime in any society which deems itself enlightened."

He told the programme that if he was convicted and imprisoned, he would starve himself to death in prison.

Members of the Youk family - who left the house during Dr Kevorkian's last visit so as not to lay themselves open to charges of complicity - expressed their approval of Mr Youk's decision and the way the doctor had carried it out. The offence, if there was any, they agreed, was to have left him to suffer indefinitely.

"I was so grateful to know that someone would relieve him of his suffering," said Mr Youk's wife, Melody. "I don't consider it murder. I consider it the way things should be."

For years, the self-styled "doctor of death" has argued that Americans should have the right to end their lives. He says he has helped more than 130 people to die. This time, though, in a calculated attempt to have the arguments tested in court, marked the first time that he has admitted - and been shown - administering the fatal dose directly.

He has been prosecuted three times for assisting individuals to commit suicide, but was acquitted each time as courts flinched from rulings that would either uphold or outlaw the "right to die".

As the baby-boom generation ages, public interest in euthanasia has increased. Oregon last year became the first state to allow what were described as "doctor-assisted suicides" after a referendum. The referendum results were upheld by the US Supreme Court which left the euthanasia debate a matter for individual states.

The issue of euthanasia is complicated in the US by the absence of any National Health Service. Some fear that terminally ill patients, or the very old, could come under pressure to end their lives prematurely to save families the cost of care.

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