IF Dr. Jack Kevorkian is tried in Michigan on charges of assisting in a suicide, the trial could have the social impact of the 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion ruling.
"I would predict the Kevorkian trial would be the start of a major debate that will take anywhere from five to 10 years to resolve and will push abortion aside as the major social issue facing Americans," said Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Biomedical Ethics. "It would have enormous international attention."
That is just what Dr. Kevorkian and his flamboyant lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger, appear to be hoping for. "This is not a test case. I see it as the case," Mr. Fieger said. "It will begin a domino effect in every state."
A Kevorkian trial would not have a direct legal effect beyond Michigan. But some experts speculate that if Kevorkian prevails, doctors now quietly prescribing overdoses of drugs to patients diagnosed as terminally ill will do so more openly. Other states might toss out laws against assisted suicide. More people diagnosed as terminally ill might choose to die, or sick people might be coaxed into suicide to spare their families the burden of hospital bills.
Kevorkian seemed to seek arrest after he helped a Michigan man, diagnosed as terminally ill, kill himself Aug. 4. At a news conference, Kevorkian later detailed his role in the death because, he said, he wanted prosecutors to have all the ammunition they needed to press charges.
Michigan's law against assisted suicide needs to be challenged and the issue put to rest, he said.
Wayne County Prosecutor John O'Hair made the arrest Tuesday, making Kevorkian the first person charged under the law, which took effect in February. Mr. O'Hair said he believes assisted suicide should be legal under certain circumstances. But he said, "If it takes a criminal prosecution or trial of Dr. Jack Kevorkian to bring this issue to full discussion and resolution, so be it."
Kevorkian has had a role in the deaths of 17 people since 1990. Murder charges were filed in the first three deaths but were thrown out because the state had no law at the time against assisted suicide.
Under the new law, which is under review by a state appeals court, helping someone commit suicide is punishable by four years in prison and a $2,000 fine.