'Suicide doctor' in legal noose

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - Faced with an emergency law banning his practice as well as possible murder charges, America's most controversial physician, the suicide-doctor Jack Kevorkian, seemed to be on his way to forced retirement - or jail - yesterday, writes David Usborne.

The shutters seemed to be coming down on the doctor, inventor of a suicide machine that feeds lethal gas into a mask, when the governor of his home state, Michigan, signed an emergency law making doctor-assisted suicide a crime punishable by imprisonment.

His troubles deepened considerably yesterday, however, following revelations that state prosecutors are investigating claims that a patient who took his own life under Dr Kevorkian's supervision last week had asked at the last moment to have the mask removed, shouting: 'Take it off]'

Since 1990, Dr Kevorkian has helped 15 terminally-ill people commit suicide, including seven in quick succession since the Michigan state legislature agreed last December to make his work illegal. The law had not been due to come into effect until April, but the apparent surge in Dr Kevorkian's business prompted the Governor, John Engler, to enact the law immediately on Thursday.

Dr Kevorkian has said he will continue to offer his services while going on hunger strike to protest against the Governor's action. He won the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, which argues that people with terminal illnesses should have the right to euthanasia.

The campaign against Dr Kevorkian has been marshalled in part by right-to-life groups originally set up to fight against abortion rights. It was an activist from one such group who discovered a written report describing the circumstances of last week's assisted death of 70-year-old Hugh Gale, who was suffering from emphysema and congestive heart disease.

The document, together with other papers recovered from Dr Kevorkian's home, suggest that the first time Mr Gale asked for the mask to be removed, Dr Kevorkian complied. But after it had been replaced 20 minutes later, and again the patient apparently yelled to be freed, he was ignored.

'This document takes it out of the realm of assisted suicide . . . and puts it into the realm of attempted homicide,' a prosecutor said. Formal charges may be brought next week.

Nationwide, polls suggest Americans support the right for people to opt for euthanasia if they are over 18 and fully conscious of their decision. While Michigan and some other states move to outlaw the practice, two - Maine and New Hampshire - are moving in the opposite direction to make it fully legal.

(Photograph omitted)

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