I first met Geoffrey Fieger at a routine press conference after one of Jack Kevorkian’s early assisted suicides, when I went to cover it for the New York Times. I quickly saw that what was going on was as much about Fieger as it was Kevorkian.
Yes, the ability of medicine to keep people breathing long after they’d lost any quality of life was, and is, a major problem, and people’s right to determine when they have had enough is an important issue that we still need to talk and think about.
Kevorkian intended to make us face this, and had the courage to do what it took to get our attention. But Geoffrey Fieger made it possible for him to do something. Had it not been for Fieger, Kevorkian would have been thrown in prison after his first suicide thirty years ago, when he helped a woman die who was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Fieger pointed out that Michigan then actually didn’t have a law against assisting in a suicide, and the charges were dropped. More suicides followed, and so did a series of sensational trials. What much of the public missed was the sheer many-layered brilliance of Fieger as an attorney in those trials. For strategic reasons, he succeeded in making himself appear the buffoon, while his client came across as a kindly, intellectual Dr. Marcus Welby.
As someone who had access behind the scenes, I can tell you the truth was pretty much the opposite. Kevorkian also extensively videotaped each patient, and those tapes made it clear these were often highly intelligent people whose wish to end their suffering was sadly rational.
They were also an indictment of an often too-callous medical profession, and doctors who were all too often not interested or willing to help them manage pain.