A 54-year-old woman who said she had Alzheimer's disease committed suicide Monday with the help of a retired Detroit-area doctor who hooked her up to an intravenous solution containing lethal drugs and then helped her kill herself in what authorities called a unusual case of medically assisted suicide.
The physician -- longtime euthanasia advocate Jack Kevorkian of Royal Oak, Mich. -- called police Monday afternoon to tell them of the suicide of Janet Adkins of Portland, Ore., which was performed using a device Kevorkian had constructed.
Kevorkian told Associated Press that Adkins traveled to Michigan over the weekend after hearing of the machine and that he drove her to a suburban Detroit park, where he and one of his relatives connected her to the intravenous solution and watched as she pressed a button that administered the lethal chemicals.
Repeated attempts to reach Kevorkian at his Royal Oak home and laboratory were unsuccessful.
The Oakland County prosecutor's office said in a statement yesterday that the prosecutor will wait for autopsy results on Adkins before deciding whether to prosecute Kevorkian but that an injunction would be sought to prevent the doctor from using the device again.
Some medical experts said, however, that Kevorkian's actions were unethical.
"It is a moral outrage," said Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Minnesota. "It was a rash, imprudent action."
Kevorkian's suicide device has been the subject of controversy since the retired pathologist began promoting it last fall to fill what he said was a moral need for a painless and convenient way for people to kill themselves.
The device is an intravenous stand containing solutions of the drugs thiopental and potassium chloride, which taken together induce coma and stop the heart from beating.
The solution is attached to a patient's arm by intravenous injection and then, with the push of a button, the chemicals enter the bloodstream. They induce unconsciousness within seconds and death within minutes.
"It simulates exactly the judicial executions that we do now with legal executions, except with this device the person does it himself by pushing a button," Kevorkian told the Detroit News on Monday.
Kevorkian, who was described in a Detroit Free Press profile last fall as living in a one-bedroom apartment above a shop in downtown Royal Oak, driving a rusty 1968 Volkswagen van and subsisting largely on cheese sandwiches, began promoting his machine last October, saying that he would help people commit suicide if they could provide compelling medical evidence that they deserved to die.
"I'm here to help anyone who's in distress or thinks he is," Kevorkian told the Free Press last fall. "I couldn't let dogs suffer like that. How can I let a human?"
Under Michigan law, the device itself is not illegal. Michigan, unlike many other states, also has no law specifically prohibiting physician-assisted suicide. However, when Kevorkian first unveiled his machine last fall, the Oakland County prosecutor's office said that under some circumstances it might attempt to prosecute someone who provided the device for the purposes of suicide.
Medical experts said that Kevorkian's act did, however, clearly violate the code of ethics of the American Medical Association. While the AMA permits doctors to forgo, stop or withdraw treatment of the terminally ill, it does not permit doctors to actively assist in ending life.
Caplan also said that Kevorkian did not meet a number of even more rudimentary ethical tests.
Caplan asked, for example, how Kevorkian knew that the woman was properly diagnosed with Alzheimer's or how euthanasia could be justified in a patient who was not terminally ill.
Adkins's husband defended his wife's decision.
"It's not a matter of how long you live, but the quality of life you live, and it was her life and her decision and she chose," Ron Adkins told Portland's KATU-TV.
"She made that decision based upon the fact that the things she loved most -- reading, literature, music and all that -- she couldn't do any more," he said.