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ASSISTED SUICIDE BATTLE SPLITS FAMILY.

Byline: Tamar Lewin The New York Times

Soon after he found out that his mother had been in contact with Dr. Jack Kevorkian about his father, a 69-year-old retired obstetrician ravaged by Alzheimer's disease, Chip Klooster began a battle that has split his family and thrown into high relief the ethical and legal issues surrounding assisted suicide.

Now, in what is apparently the first case in the nation of a child seeking custody of a parent to prevent an assisted suicide, the Klooster family - Dr. Gerald Klooster, his wife, Ruth, their four sons and daughter, and Dr. Klooster's siblings - has gathered here in a probate courtroom in snowy northern Michigan to lay bare the conflict.

That conflict is tangled. Chip Klooster has abducted his father from Florida to Michigan and has limited his family's access to him while fighting to be his conservator. Three siblings in California who, like Chip Klooster, oppose suicide on moral grounds, are fighting to win conservatorship there.

But Ruth Klooster and a fifth Klooster child believe suicide is a matter of individual choice.

While the case is unusual, the issues it raises are likely to become familiar, as suicide become more common among elderly Americans.

"Courts are going to have to grapple with complicated questions, like who can make life-and-death decisions if the person isn't competent to make them himself," said Martha Fineman, a professor at Columbia University Law School.

"Should the spouse be able to choose over the children, and if so, why is that connection the most important one? Are the children willing to assume responsibility for the care? And legally, there's a big difference between assisting someone who has a clear desire to commit suicide, and providing consent for someone else's suicide, which begins to look like murder."

In testimony last week, several of the Klooster children and their spouses said that they had heard Klooster talk about ending his life after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, but never in a way that suggested that he was making immediate plans for suicide.

They agreed that Klooster is no longer mentally competent: By now, they said, his answers to questions about whether he wants to die depend largely on how the question is framed.

"If there were discussions between him and Ruth, he would've said, 'Do it,' " said Klooster's son-in-law, Dr. Bill Hamstra, breaking down as he testified. "There are those who say he is such a gentle, nice man, he would never do this. But before he had Alzheimer's he was pro-choice; he performed abortions. He is a wonderful man, and I love him. But he has positions I think are morally reprehensible."

Whether, when and where Ruth Klooster and her husband planned to have Dr. Kevorkian assist them with suicide remains unclear. On Jan. 11, in probate court, Ruth Klooster invoked the Fifth Amendment, refusing to testify on the ground that she might incriminate herself.

Assisted suicide is illegal in Michigan, where Kevorkian has been present at 26 suicides since 1990, and faces two trials on assisted suicide charges.

In an earlier proceeding in California, where most of the Klooster family lives, Ruth Klooster testified that she and her husband were planning to meet with Kevorkian for counseling regarding their options.

Kevorkian's lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger, confirmed that while there were plans for Dr. Klooster to come to Detroit to be examined for mental competence by two psychiatrists, no suicide was scheduled.

"He doesn't work like that," Fieger said. "He would never set anything up without examining the patient and determining whether he was competent."

The suicide rate among Americans age 65 and over, the nation's fastest growing age group, increased 9 percent from 1980 to 1992, after declining for four decades, according to a new report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. No one knows how many of those suicides involve assistance, either by physicians or by family members. But most experts say they believe that assisted suicide is becoming more common.

Such cases create wrenching dilemmas for families - and vexing questions for law-enforcement officials who must decide if, and how, they will treat those who help failing relatives to end their lives:

- In New York City last month, George Delury was indicted on second-degree manslaughter in the death of his wife, Myrna Lebov, who was deteriorating from multiple sclerosis. Some of Lebov's relatives say Delury helped kill her as much to end his care-taking burden as to end her suffering.

- In South Carolina, Frances Brooke, a 52-year-old Maryland woman, has been charged with murder for injecting her 81-year-old mother, who was in chronic pain from spinal problems, nerve degeneration and diabetes, with an overdose of insulin. The charges are to go to the grand jury Feb. 29.

- In Missouri, a prosecutor filed manslaughter charges Jan. 12 against the husband and one son of Velma Howard, a 76-year-old Illinois woman with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease. The family met to celebrate the Howards' 50th wedding anniversary at a motel in Joplin, Mo. - chosen for its location between the home of the parents and those of the sons in Texas and Kansas. While there, the prosecutor charges, the senior Howard and his son Bernard gave Velma Howard narcotic-laced pudding, orange juice and vodka, and rubber bands to secure the plastic bag she used to suffocate herself.

"My sense is that there are a lot of these cases out there, and each one is a horrible tragedy for the family," said Sidney Rosoff, the past president of the Hemlock Society, a national right-to-die group.

"They show how badly we need new laws that say clearly what doctors can do when they're faced with these decisions. Some people turn for help to their doctors, and some are afraid to. Some doctors will say, if you give her this much of that medicine, she'll die. Some doctors are afraid, too."

In most states, the law offers little guidance on precisely what kind of assistance is allowed in a suicide.

Many right-to-die advocates say that decisions to end a life of pain and suffering should be made privately, by families and their doctors. In 1994, voters in Oregon approved a measure allowing doctors to prescribe lethal doses of drugs for patients with less than six months to live.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Jan 21, 1996
Words:1047
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