Detroit Alliance Works To Counter 'Dr. Death'

Here in the city where Jack Kevorkian has become notorious for assisting people who want to commit suicide, a coalition of health-care organizations has mounted a counteroffensive: a 24-hour hot line to prevent assisted suicide and abortion.

Callers are greeted by a voicemail system that announces: "Thank you for responding to Cardinal [Adam] Maida's call for an increased respect for human life. If you would like to discuss alternatives to abortion, press one. If you would like to discuss alternatives to assisted suicide and euthanasia, press two."

Since July, some 500 people have called and been linked to one of the 30 health-care organizations that have signed up for the Project Life alliance. Organized by the Roman Catholic archdiocese, Cardinal Maida has promised that the alliance will provide counseling, referrals, and outright financial assistance - "basically whatever it takes" to prevent people from having abortions and committing suicide.

"This is not so much about fighting Kevorkian as it is about how we, as a society, care for people," says Carolyn Cassin, president of Hospice of Michigan, the nation's largest independent hospice.

It's perhaps not surprising that the Catholic Church, which has long backed alternatives to abortion, decided to intervene in counseling and providing alternatives to assisted suicide.

But this is apparently the first high-profile effort of its kind in the country. Many other church officials say some kind of intervention and alternative to Dr. Kevorkian's methods is a good idea, but the religious community is often as divided as American society as to how to help. Some churches refer callers requesting help to their own ministers or mental-health organizations. But some even help people end their lives if they've already arrived at that decision.

"Most urban clergy like myself have had to deal with [suicide] around the issue of AIDS, and people who have thought through and determined ... they want to bring their lives to an end," says the Rev. William Nye of the Network of Pastoral Counseling Centers in New York. "I know of clergy that have participated in bringing lives to an end."

Andrew Lusting, academic director at the Institute of Religion at the Texas Medical Center in Houston, says he knows of only two churches that have sanctioned either assisted suicide or euthanasia - the Unitarian Universalist and the United Church of Christ. The Catholic Church strongly opposes suicide or euthanasia, as do most Protestant faiths, Dr. Lustig says.

Callers to the Project Life hot line have been evenly split between those seeking referrals and help for themselves or relatives and those calling to comment or lend support.

Among the 30 organizations that have joined the Project Life alliance is the secular Hospice of Michigan. Its president, Ms. Cassin, says she has long felt the need for a more visible and direct way to reach people diagnosed with terminal illnesses.

"Many of us in hospice care felt something had to be done to counteract Kevorkian and [Kevorkian's] lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger," says Sister Giovanni, president and founder of the Angela Hospice, a 16-bed facility in Livonia, Mich. "I had the impulse but not the courage. I told the cardinal, 'I'm standing right behind you.'"

In some cases, hospices involved have received calls from patients who had already contacted Kevorkian. Hospice directors say they also are getting calls from patients outside the Detroit area, as well as from colleagues across the country.

"There is no question that this effort, and others like it, will expand. We expect to bring together a much larger community," Cassin says.

Kevorkian's assisted suicides have accelerated since May 14, when he was last acquitted of assisted suicide charges by a Michigan jury. The former pathologist, who has been tagged with the moniker, Dr. Death, has assisted about 40 suicides in all.

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